File photo: Minister of Tourism Derek Hanekom. Picture: Timothy Bernard

Cape Town - Bold new initiatives are needed to further grow the number of visitors to South Africa, Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom said on Wednesday.

Opening debate in Parliament on his department's budget, he cautioned that the spectacular growth seen in the sector over the past two decades could start levelling off.

In 2012, tourism's direct contribution to South Africa's GDP was R93-billion.

The sector had also experienced “a staggering annual average real growth rate... of 7.3 percent over the past 20 years”.

Last year, international tourist arrivals to South Africa almost touched the 10 million mark.

“As impressive as these numbers are, some say we may have reached a plateau. If this is the case, it would follow that some bold and innovative new initiatives are needed.”

Although South Africa was not difficult to sell, “we will have to use all our creative energy, and do all the right things, to get a greater share of the international tourism market, and to extract the full value of in-bound tourism as an earner of much-needed foreign exchange”.

Hanekom described the local tourism industry as “the new gold”, directly employing 617 000, or 4.6 percent of the total workforce in 2012. This was more than the number employed in the country's mining sector.

“We need to do everything possible to ensure ease of access for tourists, including entry requirements, cost of entry, convenience and affordability of air travel.”

South Africa had to work extra hard due to its geographical location.

“For most countries, we are a long-haul tourist destination. Therefore we need to work extra hard to ensure that the long haul is worthwhile.

“Notwithstanding our good brand, some new innovative programmes are needed to sharpen our competitive edge,” he said. - Sapa