Why more visitors go to South Africa
They say travel broadens the mind. But often I find it just heats it up.
I have just returned from South Africa, a country that receives 8.5 million international visitors every year. I stayed at the V&A Waterfront, which is the country’s biggest tourist attraction, drawing over 20 million foreign and domestic visitors annually. Kenya as a country has yet to clock 2 million international visitors, and a week spent at Cape Town’s Waterfront was enough to tell me why.
Cape Town’s harbour is certainly pretty, backed by the majestic Table Mountain. But there are not many other God-given gifts in sight. Unlike Kenya, the Cape is not teeming with wildlife, nor does it have a warm ocean, feathery-white sands and swaying palms. Providence gave us those things. But the reason South Africa is way ahead of us is more to do with the mind of man than the hand of God.
The enormously successful V&A Waterfront is the work of humans, not angels. It is a working harbour that has been transformed into a teeming sea-front showcase, full of shops, hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions. There is quality everywhere, for all pocket sizes. The fine dining competes with the world’s finest; the fast food is indeed fast and cheap.
The Waterfront works because it is run by a private company, which was recently bought out by a global consortium for a colossal sum. And it really does work. Restaurants are arranged side-by-side on the seafront, competing for your custom. If you want to go out in a boat, you can choose from humble sea-buses to sleek sailing boats, all offering good value because they have to compete.
There is hardly a single shop I visited where I was not greeted warmly and enthusiastically. Staff are knowledgeable and energetic, and know exactly how to make a sale. Armed police patrol the precincts, making the Waterfront entirely secure for visitors, and double up as friendly tourist guides, offering guidance and directions.
If you want to see the town, you can hop onto a special tourist bus which leaves every 20 minutes – on the dot. You can hop off at the Table Mountain Cableway, which has been operating for 89 years, and you will whisked up to the mountain-top in a smoothly running cable car. Everything is orderly and on time. The views from the top are indeed phenomenal, but I was far more interested in observing the power of good management of resources at work.
What makes me angry is how much more we have by way of natural beauty and resources. South Africa cannot compare with Kenya in terms of variety of wildlife and tropical landscapes. But it is streets ahead in managing its tourism.
What have we done with our Mombasa, our Kilindini, our coastline? Whatever has been done is the work of private operators. Government is an inhibitor and blocker, rather than an enabler. When have we given systematic thought to our tourist attractions, and how to develop them?
Consider if Table Mountain was situated in Mombasa rather than Cape Town. For starters, the technology needed to put up a simple cable car system would be beyond us, so we would wait for decades for some foreigner to suggest it. Then, we would squabble for aeons about who should own and run the cable company. Coastals would maintain that it would have to be given to “one of their own”, and would threaten to disrupt operations if it were not.
Then we would run a flawed tendering process which would result in the award of the operation to some shady recently created company controlled by shadowy politicians. That company would buy third-hand dodgy cables and cars from Uzbekistan at world-beating prices, using public money. The operation would be poorly managed and maintained. There would inevitably be a major accident, and then chaotic recriminations would result, causing the cableway to be suspended. After which the whole cycle would repeat itself.
Do I exaggerate? I don’t think so. The countries that attract most visitors are very clever about it. They combine enlightened public policy with private capital and management expertise to design world-class attractions. And the operative word is “design”: nature did not bestow the Eiffel Tower on Paris, Big Ben on London, or the Waterfront on Cape Town. Clever people sat down and planned it all; clever people run those attractions; and clever people make a lot of money out of them.
Certainly, South Africa faces many challenges going forward. Maintaining ethnic unity and equity will require great vision and inventiveness. In Kenya we have many natural advantages but few man-made ones. What we have done with our tourism is the result of private ingenuity overcoming public incompetence. We could do so much more if we allowed science and management to come to the fore.
Coming back to the sight of our squabbling and venal politicians was more than I could take. I think I need a holiday…