Political Economy of South African Tourist Stats

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 6/09/2008 01:38:00 AM
Tourism is big business in many parts of the world, and this certainly holds true in South Africa. While searching for something entirely different, I came across this article by the Independent Online of South Africa concerning a curious phenomenon: While South African tourism officials brag about record tourist numbers year after year into the country, it turns out that the interpretation of what "tourists" are is excessively generous. An academic critic says the figures given are grossly inflated since well over half of all visitors come from neighbouring Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland. Unfortunately, visitors to South Africa from these impoverished nations hardly resemble the sort of tourists that typically spring to mind: camera-toting, souvenir-buying, and lodge-renting Westerners with cash to burn at various tourist traps.

Instead, what we have are folks from these countries visiting South Africa in what may be better called "survivalism": many of these erstwhile "tourists" have been deported or are fleeing from the countries mentioned above. While government officials defensively say that their definition of a "tourist" is in keeping with the WTO's, it certainly strains belief. The political economy of statistics can be contentious:

The statistics used by the government to boast about South Africa's ability to attract tourism are, at best, "a sleight of hand" because the numbers are not a reflection of real tourism. This was the response of Professor Loren Landau, the head of the University of the Witwatersrand's forced migration studies programme, to an analysis (by country of origin) of the statistics used by the government to claim the fastest growing tourism in the world.

In 2007, a total of 9,07-million foreigners visited South Africa - an 8,3 percent increase over 2006 - as the country broke its record for annual tourist arrivals for the third year running. But 2-million (just over 22 percent) of the 9 million official, annual visitors come from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, while another 3-million tourists come from Lesotho and Swaziland. This means that 5,2-million of South Africa's visitors emanate from four of the poorest countries in the world. The whole of Europe and North America supply only 1,7-million of the country's tourists.

"Yes, I think one does have to question whether it is honest to use figures from countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Lesotho as proof of the growth of our tourism. It's pretty much sleight of hand, it's actually a cheek, to claim that a regional migration system equals a growth in tourism," said Landau. "Look, a lot of the people from those countries spend money here. Obviously, they don't spend as much as the camera-toting tourist from Europe who goes to a game lodge, but they spend."

"But the majority of them are visiting to shop for basics or for survival reasons - and linking these figures to the tourism, saying how well these figures bode for the 2010 world cup, using these figures to boost tourism, is a bit of a stretch." Landau noted also that Zimbabweans and Mozambicans, two of the largest contingents of "tourists" to South Africa, recently have been deported or have fled the country. It is also not known how many of those people from neighbouring states, who come into the country on tourist visas, ever go home.

According to South African Tourism (SAT), a tourist is defined as "any visitor travelling to a place other than that of his/her usual environment for more than one night but less than 12 months, and whose main purpose of the trip is other than the exercise of an activity remunerated from within the place visited".

Last month, Rejoice Mabudafhasi, the deputy minister of environmental affairs and tourism, said at the Tourism Indaba in Durban: "there has been a significant growth in the tourism over the past few years. In 1994 fewer than 600 000 tourists visited South Africa per year. In 2007 we received just over nine million foreign arrivals. What an incredible feat."

Also last month, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the minister of environmental affairs, used the same statistics in parliament when he said that the 9 million arrivals represented growth of 8,3 percent over the previous year, outstripping the average global tourism growth rate of 6 percent.

To back its claims that South African tourism has one of the highest growth rates in the world SAT said that 2,17-million visitors arrived from Lesotho, just over 1 million apiece from Mozambique and Swaziland, and 964 027 from Zimbabwe. These four countries contribute some 5,2-million of the 9-million tourists to South Africa.

African countries are the single largest source of foreign visitors to South Africa with more than 6,8-million people visiting. This is followed by Europe with 1,4-million, North America 329 000, Australasia 115 000, central and South America 57 000, the Middle East 41 000 and the Indian Ocean Islands 17 000. The vast majority of visitors from Africa arrive by land. On average, a visitor arriving by land spends two nights in South Africa while an average arrival by air spends six nights in the country.

Didi Moyle, the chief operating officer of SAT, said: "According to globally accepted definitions, all foreigners who leave their country of origin for more than 24 hours are tourists unless they are in transit, working on contract or staying in the host country for more than 365 days. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has put massive resources into establishing these global definitions for tourism so that we can compare statistics across the world."

Moyle said that "the outcry from sections of the tourism industry is based on the belief that the term 'tourist' should refer only to people on holiday, with a camera round their neck and preferably from Europe. In WTO terminology, that person is a leisure tourist - to be counted alongside all other people travelling for whatever reason.

"If leisure tourism is the only category that interests some members of the industry, so be it. But others are interested in the bigger picture," said Moyle. "Hotels, for example, want to understand guests who might be wholesale or retail shoppers from the region. They are high spenders who visit often. "They play a critical role in the economies of Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Free State and Gauteng."