Tourism: Making South Africa the preferred tourist destination is my focus- Thekiso Rakolojane


South Africa is endowed with some of Africa’s fascinating tourist attractions. This has made the country a must see for tourists looking for destinations to visit for leisure, adventure, shopping and business tourism. South Africa Tourism, Hub Head, West Africa, Thekiso Rakolojane who spoke to in an interview said is primary focus is to make the country the preferred tourist destination in the sub region.

Tell us about yourself?
First of all welcome, and thanks for giving us the opportunity to share a little bit about ourselves and our vision for the market but most importantly through you. I have been in the hospitality industry now for 10 years and first 5 years of the 10 years was spent in the grading counsel which is a unit of South African tourism.

My role there was to really make sure that when our various counterparts in the various markets are marketing the destination to the various tourists to visit South Africa, when they come to visit South Africa they get exposed to quality products. And when I talk about quality products, I mean from the hotels to the various experiences that people get to enjoy like the bungee jumping facilities, the various museums, the Robben Island, those facilities must be kept to World standard and maintained.

And how we did that was through a very rigorous grading system and I was responsible for marketing that grading system to about 26,000 tourism products in South Africa. So my foray into the continent was through the grading council where I got to engage with the various trade partners in the various markets. My first exposure was in this particular market, in Nigeria, and then we expanded it to Ghana, and the rest of the continent.

So, I have a vast and wide experience in terms of engaging with various markets in the continent. For the last three years however, I have been looking at the continent holistically from a brand perspective of South Africa Tourism. I was responsible for making sure that South Africa tourism and South Africa as a destination is represented positively as a brand and as a destination of choice for all our tourists. I have been given a mandate now late last year December to come and head the West African office and my assignment is for the next five years.

So, I look forward to making the best of the next five years and hopefully who knows, am a Lagosian at heart. My mandate at the moment is to really create a demand for South Africa as a destination of choice for West Africans. And I say West Africans because my focus market is Nigeria and Ghana. Yes, we are physically based here in Lagos purely because there is a bigger demand in Lagos and a bigger population and all the economic factors necessitated that we are based in Lagos. So that is how I found myself in Lagos.

How has your stay in Nigeria been so far in Nigeria?
In the three weeks that I have been here, it has been totally amazing. The people have been very receptive, and I believe I have received the warmth of the Lagosians because I have a long ongoing relationship with them. In previous jobs I have engaged with them quiet extensively. I have been in the market albeit in different roles but I have been exposed to the market. I have been at Akwaaba twice when we participated. I have been at various shows, met with some of the various key partners, I have engaged with them when we hosted them in South Africa. So my relationship in the last three weeks have been quite positive, in the sense that I was well received. I have immersed myself into the market, I have managed to have my favorite meal now 3 times since have been here. My pepper soup chicken, but I must say though I am battling to find consistent Jollof rice. In some place they serve the best Jollof rice, but in some places it tastes different. I won’t mention the establishment (laughs) but one thing I can say is that Jollof rice is definitely my favorite and Suya.

As the new head, what should your trade partners in West Africa be expecting from you?
Partnerships are very important to me and the reason why they are very critical not only to me but to the organization is because we are here to create a demand. We are a destination marketing organization, therefore we create a demand. Our trade partners are there to create a fulfillment, the nature of their business is fulfillment partners. So, whiles we create the demand they create the various packages that people buy and travel to our destinations. They create the various platforms where we are able to go to those platforms and showcase the destinations. It could be trade shows, where we can put up a stand and engage with the various delegates that visit those shows and we present the destination and share the information with the delegates.

So, those are very critical to us because we don’t own shows, we do not have the capability to put together packages and people to buy those packages. So, the partnerships to those trade partners are very important to us. Going forward one of the strategic areas of enhancement will be how do we move even closer to our trade partners and make sure that there is shared value. For me one of the big things that drive me is shared value. If we have shared value of making sure that people have a positive visit experience to South Africa, what does that look like? Obviously the trade partner will be from a commercial perspective.

Commercial perspective in the sense that people go to South Africa and spend money, enjoy their experiences but for us it’s about them having good experiences, coming over and over again and most importantly inviting other people to come. So, the trade partners become very important to us. And when I say trade partners I think it’s very important to identify what we mean, it is those that put together the packages, those that are having the various trade platforms where we are able to showcase our destination, it’s those that have opinion leaders, those that have access to audiences that we communicate to that enables us to have a voice to engage with the audiences as well as the media.

The trade media is an example, they are very important to us because they are mouthpiece to us and so they become very critical to our success. And therefore one of the things that I normally share with people is embedded in the business principles of South African Tourism in terms of the 5 operational thrust we have. The third thrust talks about having strategic partnership for success. And so my focus is embedded in that, if we have strong strategic partnerships that have mutual value and mutual benefits we can only win as partners.

What are the other four strategic principles of SAT?
Firstly, Investing in a markets that is conducive for us to invest. Secondly, is about building a resolute brand; as a destination we do know that we are competing with other brands. How do we make sure that South Africa is a very strong brand? I think have shared the third strategy, the fourth one is about our people, how do we make sure that we have empowered people, people that have access to information and the right tools for them to do their work.

As you can see they are all interlinked, as long as you know where to invest, just like we have invested in West Africa, and we opened an office. This is the only office we have in the continent therefore it says that West Africa as a market is very important to us, we see value therefore we invest in it. My job as I come into this market is to raise the value of the brand. As a brand marketer that is my biggest strength, to make sure that with the competition that we have, how do we position ourselves as a preferred destination to the West Africans.

In doing that some of the strategic alliances that we need are people, platforms, trade media, trade partners, media at large and pretty much all the factors that we have. How do we make sure that we have empowered staff with the right resources for them to be able to implement and meet those particular targets that we have set for ourselves. So, it all works out in terms of how we do things but what I want to share with you is to understand that it is not a haphazard way of operating, it is embedded in the principles of the business

Nigerians are probably the most travelled but over the years we have had issues with visas to South Africa, what are your plans of making sure that this problem is solved?
The issue of visas really is not a challenge that is exclusive to us in South African tourism but also West Africa. It’s actually a challenge that is so important to us that it’s actually receiving a presidential attention. I do know that there is a task team that has been put in place to look at specifically Nigeria, India and China in terms of ways and means of how the current visa challenges can be addressed. In the interim while the micro issues are been looked at in terms of addressing the issue of visa challenges, we do have particular people who have the competency and have been tasked with the responsibilities of overseeing the visa process which in this case is the Consular General as well as the high commissioner.

So the way we engage or rather the way we approach the current issues that are been experienced by our partner is that it’s an ongoing engagement to show you how important it is. As a matter of fact at my very first meeting when I got into the market was to go visit the Consular General just to understand where we are in terms of the issue of visas and to share also with him some of the operational challenges that have been brought to our attention by our partners just so that there is an ongoing sharing of information between us.

One thing that we are committed to including the consular general is the ongoing engagement with our trade partners with the view of as and when these issues are being resolved, particularly because this market has high influx of applications. And for the longest of time there has been this despairing view in terms of the efficiency in which the processing happens, where we can get to a point where we can standardize the process. What that standardization looks like I’m not at liberty and I not sure how that is going to be but I know that eventually we will get to a position where we can find a common way of solving this.

In the past SAT has held road shows in Nigeria for tour operators from South Africa, will this be an ongoing strategy for you?
Definitely, it is a strategic platform for us and we had a plan to have one last year but due to some operational changes, we had to put it on hold. It wasn’t really cancelled but rather we moved it to this year. So, this year when we are through with planning will be able to share with the industry as to when and where the road show is going to be happening. But a commitment we can make for now is that the roadshow is definitely going to take place.

How can you evaluate the annual fam trip organized by SAT for West African Tour operators to South Africa especially Ghana and Nigeria, has it been impactful in terms of bringing in more tourists from this region?
It has been very impactful, as of fact we are just looking at the November numbers now that came out today, Nigeria is up by 4.7 in terms of arrivals, I think Ghana is up to about 22% which is quiet encouraging and that performance comes from the work that has been done by ourselves and our partners. And as I said, we created the demand and our fulfillment partners sell the packages therefore people travel to the destination. When we talk about evaluation and the return on investment and the farm trips it’s a multi facet view, so there is the issue around our brand where we have an ongoing measurement of our brand in comparison to our competitors in terms of how aware people are about our brands.

I can tell you that the awareness in Nigeria is well above 90%, therefore it means that the work we are doing with our influencers, trade partners that are also by the way sharing a lot of information on their social media platforms has also increased the level of awareness level of our brand. And the one key area that we are interested in increasing is around the positivity of us as a destination. So, yes people might be aware of us but the demand has to be positive around us as a destination. And I think the partnership with yourselves, it becomes a collaborative effort of how then do we change that narrative around the destination that people not only start knowing about us but also get a positive view about us. And I think it has to do with the kind of stories that we share about the destinations that will then start changing that narrative.

I know SAT has a strong presence in Nigeria and Ghana in terms of marketing South Africa Tourism, are you looking at extending your marketing reach to other West African Countries?
One of the things I mentioned earlier in terms of our five strategic thrust, is that we are much targeted in terms of where we do our investment. So, research told us that in terms of West African market Nigeria and Ghana, in terms of people with the appetite to travel to South Africa, this is the two markets that have the biggest appetite for that. We looked at the infrastructure, we looked at quite a number of variables that will then inform us to invest in this market and these two markets ticked all the boxes.

So, the other surrounding market unfortunately they might have ticked all the boxes but not most boxes and therefore as a result they fall outside our consideration in terms of countries that we can invest in. But that in itself does not necessarily mean that we will not have those areas as focus. For example Senegal, within the next five years things might change in terms of its landscape that might necessitate that we go in and do a research and if the result of the research comes back and tells us that that we need to head into the market then we will do that. But we are driven by the research and the insight that we do through our strategic insights in the analytic department at the head office. That is why it enables us to identify those markets where we can go and do further investments and start marketing those other destinations.

How would you describe tourism market in Nigeria?
Well, one thing that I will say is that research tells us that Nigerians are big travellers. Big travellers because they are mobile and that in itself tell you that they have an appetite to travel. It could be intra continental travel or global travel. What we have also noticed is that in terms of their urban travel, there are some specific markets that they like to go to for specific reasons. Some people like to come to South Africa for the variety of night life that we provide, the shopping, there is variety of shopping experiences that one can have, the various adventure facilities that we have, and we know that Nigerians really like it. When we do hosting for example, with the way people respond to it or when we sell packages the way people go on to have various experiences they respond to them quite positively.

So, what we have learnt is that they are quite spontaneous people but I think one of the things I have learnt personally in the last few months in terms of my own research is that Nigerians are spontaneous travellers. They might just decide that this weekend they want to go to this destination. So, it very important to understand that agility and for us as a business operator it becomes a case of how you respond to their spontaneity when we have got rigid processes in place in terms of their application process and then facilitating their travel. But it’s going to be an ongoing thing as and when we get to the stage of extending that agility that is needed to respond to the demand of that traveller.

South African Tourism has a vibrant marketing drive when it comes to tourism which I think Nigeria is yet to initiate; in your opinion what do you think we should be doing in this regard?
Well, I wouldn’t have an opinion as regards domestic marketing in Nigeria. I haven’t had time to immerse myself to that extent where I would be in a position to make a view. I do however feel that maybe with due course we might see but at this stage I actually do not have a view in terms of what can be done to stimulate domestic travel in Nigeria.

By Friday Nwosu and Deborah Taiwo

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