Eyes bright with intelligence, a quick wit and oodles of charm. These are the first impressions one gets upon meeting Sisa Ntshona, appointed Chief Executive Officer of South African Tourism in October last year.
But the more I chat to him the more I become aware of a deep passion and commitment to develop tourism in South Africa.
He has more than 15 years' experience in leadership roles in a range of sectors, both within and outside the tourism sector. He has proven strategic capability, strong entrepreneurial flair and strong commercial experience, having managed and run business operations successfully across the African continent and in the Middle East. His ability to infuse commercial objectives with an impact-driven focus is both relevant and suitable for this key role as CEO of South African Tourism.
He was appointed to lead South African Tourism into a new era of business sustainability through increased cooperation with the tourism industry.
Thebe Ikalafeng, Deputy Chair of South African Tourism Board and a member of the Panel appointed to lead the rigorous recruitment, selection and approval process of the new CEO, said of him: "Sisa's proven ability to harness and analyze data and market intelligence towards strategy and action plans, as well as his people management skills, were particularly impressive."
Ntshona shared his thoughts on some key issues as he takes South African Tourism forward.
"I would like to think I bring commercial awareness and commercial astuteness to the position. I hope to drive innovation to enable the organization to be performance driven, and have measurable impacts such as contribution to GDP, job creation and transformation. I think bankers are by nature versatile, so hopefully I bring that to the table too," he says.
In terms of strategy, he believes that domestic tourism should be ignited first in South Africa. "Most tourism economies around the world have a strong domestic tourism foundation and on top of that comes the international market, but we are the other way around. The problem with that situation is if the world decides not to travel to South Africa, we have a serious problem as our domestic revenue stream is so low. So it's important that we build a robust domestic tourism space - it has to start there. We have various initiatives on the go to build a culture of holiday travel at a local level."
Together with his team, he is also identifying which key international markets to invest their marketing budget in, of which China is a very important one. "We determine the overseas markets to target through criteria such as GDP per capita and ease of travel. We are also looking at forming partnerships with other (often unlikely) entities that have similar objectives to ours, such as banks. Details of some exciting initiatives will be unveiled soon. But one of the things that preoccupies me is what do we need to do to get a B&B in Soweto to become visible to tourists in China, for example? It may not form part of the packages that tour operators put together but there are tourists who want to experience something like that.
"We need to show tourists that South Africa offers more than the beach, the berg (mountains) and the bush - we offer a variety of authentic experiences, flavors and smells, within a safe, secure and comfortable travel environment. We need to target millennials who want to travel with purpose and leave knowing their money spent has made a positive impact on the economy, the environment and society. It's also vital to drive awareness among consumers and operators of fair trade and responsible tourism principles," he noted.
Ntshona says he hopes all these things will help South Africa boost tourism growth, create jobs in the tourism economy and its spin-off industries, and address the income and inequality gap in the country.
"We don't have a domestic travel culture in this country, by and large. In the fairly recent past most people needed a pass to travel around the country, so mobility is not naturally ingrained in us. We don't move much, not even around the world. We need to encourage more of our people to travel around the country for leisure or holiday purposes, not just to visit their friends and relatives. South African Tourism also needs more co-ordination with government entities Brand South Africa and Proudly South Africa to amplify our messages. We should have an "SA Inc." approach to tourism, where all the pieces are aligned towards the same goal: contributing to tourism growth," he says.
"As a marketing agency, we sell the aspirations of the country - its people, its flavors, its hopes and dreams. However, my marketing budget is the same size as that of one of our major cellular networks, just to provide some perspective. It means we have to be nimble with the funds we do have and leverage partnerships with the private and public sectors so make those funds go further."
Tourism contributes about 9 percent to the GDP in South Africa , directly and indirectly through associated industries such as transport, but Ntshona wants to push that contribution towards double digits in the next few years.
"With mining and manufacturing under pressure, the contribution of tourism has to significantly increase. It's been identified as a major potential growth area for our economy and an important future source of job creation. We strongly believe its potential is untapped and that there are many opportunities for SMMEs in particular to flourish in this space. We should also look more closely at niche tourism experiences, like sports and medical tourism. There's also a lot of scope for business tourism - meetings, conventions, exhibitions and incentives."
Ntshona says that when we make bids for conventions, it's no longer just about which countries can offer delegates five-star treatment. "Companies are increasingly asking what kind of footprint they are leaving behind - are communities better off if the conference was held in Mpumalanga rather than in Sandton, for example? The ripple effect of holding an international meeting in such a place becomes more pronounced. So, when we're bidding against other international cities for these major meetings and conferences, we can't just look at price - people are willing to pay a premium if they feel good. We need to drive home the message that we can deliver your conference on time and according to spec, but you will also have positively impacted on the community and boosted your company's triple bottom line."
"We have some fantastic tourism establishments in this beautiful country - adding up to a varied bouquet or suite of experiences. But also, in keeping with the Tourism Month theme of Tourism for All, we also have tourism experiences that are accessible to ordinary people, not just the wealthy. You can go to a Kruger Park game lodge and see the same leopard from a six-star hotel and from a tent; the same experience but from a different vantage point. We're also doing well when it comes to conservation and responsible tourism, but we can certainly do more to cut out any untoward tourism practices.
He believes South Africa's biggest tourism asset is a combination of things. "It's the diversity of our people. It's our flavors, our smells, our food, our colors, our music - and also, of course, our country's natural beauty. The diversity of our people is mirrored in the diversity of our landscape, and the experiences we offer. You can go from Sandton to the bush in two hours, and get to the beach in an hour via plane, all in the same country."
"China plays a major role in our new international marketing strategy. We are targeting this new emerging market from our Beijing office and are focusing closely on understanding the Chinese traveler better. For example, we have just had a program with travel agencies taking tour operators to learn Mandarin, and understand the cultures and preferences of that market and ensure their services are more user-friendly to Chinese tourists."
"Just to give you an idea of how important and valuable the Chinese market is to South Africa, take a look at these figures: for the period January to August 2016, South Africa attracted 78,969 tourists from China. For the same period in 2015, we saw 48,136 Chinese travelers visiting our shores. In the space of a year, that's a massive increase of 30,833 visitors, or a 64.1 percent jump. This represents massive growth, and we believe that Asia could soon overtake North America as South Africa's second-largest international source market (our number one source market is currently Europe). So we are keen to pull out all the stops and roll out the welcome mat to cater to the growing Chinese tourism market."
He says the reason South Africa still attracts so few Chinese tourists compared to, say, the United States or Australia, is that South Africa is still emerging as an economy, while those countries are perhaps more advanced and hold better brand appeal.
"But we are forging closer ties with China through BRICS and other platforms. We are seen as a long-haul destination but we are trying to grow our point-to-point traffic between South Africa and China. At the heart of our efforts to make Chinese tourists feel welcome in South Africa is to understand and cater for them from the insights we are constantly gleaning through research - what activities do they like to do, what are their culinary preferences, do they like to shop, do they enjoy nature, art and so on. We need to have more bespoke or tailored experiences that talk to the different segments of the Chinese market," says Ntshona.
Sisa Ntshona, Chief Executive Officer of South African Tourism.