Thulani Nzima, CEO of South African Tourism, delivers a speech at Indaba’s opening ceremony. // © 2015 Reg Caldecott/South African Tourism
Feature image (above): Indaba attendees browse on Samsung tablets in the event's TechZone. // © 2015 Reg Caldecott/South African Tourism
When Nelson Mandela opened the first Indaba trade show in a free South Africa, he said, "It is in tourism that nature and humanity meet most equitably and profitably.” He also said that tourism provides the resources for the conservation of natural heritage.
More than 20 years later, that spirit of optimism and possibility still holds true at Africa's largest tourism trade show, which has expanded to include more than 1,000 exhibitors from 20 African countries and about 2,000 buyers from all over the world.
During Indaba's various meetings, speeches and panels, it was clear that things are changing in South Africa. Transportation developments have made remote sights more accessible; destination marketers are embracing new technology to spread a more media-rich message; and sustainability is coming to the forefront for African hotels and tour operators.
Despite the outbreak of Ebola in a few West African countries in 2014, international arrivals in Africa increased by about 1 million visitors, resulting in 56 million tourists total for the year. According to South African minister of tourism Derek Hanekom, that number is expected to grow between 3 percent to 5 percent in 2015.
The African continent's vast natural diversity and sights, as well as the hospitality and friendliness of its people, were cited as the reasons why many travelers return to Africa year after year.
"The unique sites that entice people to visit us — our warm welcome, our vibrant music, dancing and art, the stories told by the people themselves — these are the things that connect tourists to the soul and the people of Africa," Hanekom said.
In South Africa specifically, attacks on foreign nationals made the news in spring 2015. However, Thulani Nzima, CEO of South African Tourism, assured travelers that these were sporadic, isolated incidents and that the attacks in no way pose danger to visitors.
“It is safe to come to South Africa,” Nzima said. “Our biggest currency is our people.”
While the government has been focused on how to position the country, tour operators, marketers and buyers alike have been developing how to adapt their messages to today’s tech-savvy consumer.
“Technological innovation, disruptive business models and changing consumer preferences challenge our ingenuity and agility every single day,” Hanekom said. “I can confidently say that we are responding to these challenges by differentiating and repackaging our offerings to compete with the best in the world.”
One new app that generated buzz at Indaba was “Madiba’s Journey,” an interactive audio-tour app for iPhone and Android that traces important points of interest and tourist spots surrounding Mandela’s life and legacy, from Robben Island, where he was imprisoned, to Qunu in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, where he was buried. It also allows users to design their own travel itineraries around sites significant to Mandela’s life.
Robben Island Museum also announced its inclusion in Google Cultural Institute’s virtual museum. People interested in learning more about Robben Island’s role in South African political activism during apartheid can now view a digital collection of stories from former political prisoners; archival documents, including prisoners’ letters; and 360-degree panoramic images of the island.
When asked if the availability of such rich media online would result in fewer visits, Sibongiseni Mkhize, CEO of Robben Island Museum, said he isn’t concerned.
“Actually, we’re expecting the opposite,” Mkhize said. “The way things are today, even when people want to book hotels or visit places, they rely very much on the Internet to have an idea of what [to expect]. We are expecting people to do the same for Robben Island Museum.”
Attendees also shared a focus on connectivity and sustainability in tourism.
"Sustainable tourism is very important for us,” Nzima said. “We are responding to customers who want to know that their money is going to a good cause. People are no longer seeking pure opulence; people want to engage a little bit more."
To meet the transportation demand for travelers seeking authentic adventures in nature reserves and national parks, South African Airways introduced Airlink service to Skukuza Airport in Kruger National Park in 2014. This year, it has announced plans to further extend Airlink service to safari lodge airstrips with Lodge Link, which will reach Arathusa, Londolozi, Sabi Sabi, Singita and Ulusaba.
“You can buy an SAA ticket from London to Londolozi, from Salt Lake City to Singita,” said Marc Cavaliere, executive vice president for North America at South African Airways. “If we took you in any closer, we’d be taxiing to your pillow.”