I am fortunate to have known some of the titans of South Africa’s tourism industry — Sol Kerzer of Southern Sun & Sun International, Hans Enderle of City Lodge, David Jack of the V&A Waterfont (who I worked with for 25 years) and many others. I miss people like them in today’s tourism industry.
But every winter, I think of Austrian-born Otto Stehlik who started Protea Hotels. He is the only person in tourism ever to receive a national award — the National Order of the Baobab in Silver for “his excellent contribution to economic and social development in South Africa” by Jacob Zuma for 2015. Protea Hotels employed 15,000 people.
Fedhasa reported on his award at the time (click here): “Stehlik said that even though it is a great honour to be recognised and awarded, he feels obligated to speak up about the current crisis in South African tourism. As responsible South Africans we should be naming and shaming institutions, corporations and individuals who have done damage to the industry and economy.
“Last year was not an easy year for tourism in this country. We have suffered self-inflicted pain through the Visa disaster caused by the Department of Home Affairs and via the ongoing South African Airways leadership debacle. It is time for corporate South Africa to stand up, speak up and be counted if we are to continue to build upon the unlimited potential our tourism industry offers for the advancement of each and every South African,” he said.
I met Otto for the first time in the mid-1980s. I wanted to interview him and he gladly agreed, but said he was very busy so would I mind meeting him on a Saturday morning. Protea Hotels had one hotel — the Heerengracht Hotel — and we met in his office above the hotel in the old Trust Bank building. During our discussion he said, “I don’t understand Capetonians!… They are always complaining about the weather! Sure we have some bad days, but then the clouds clear and we have Champagne Weather!” That lives with me forever!
My first dealings at Southern Sun were with Peter Venison in 1979 (when I helped them identify a site for what became the Cape Sun Hotel) who was followed by Peter Bacon (I’ve always laughed about their surnames) who took over as CEO from Sol when he left to start Sun International. Peter gave me one of my best headlines: “You never say no in a five star hotel.” I had breakfast with Peter and Jules Schneid, the hotel’s project manager, during the Cape Sun’s dry run. Jules asked the waitress for honey. She looked at him blankly and said, “The menu says preserves, it doesn’t say honey.” Peter called her across — I don’t think she knew who he was — and said very quietly, “I want you to remember one thing very, very clearly — In a five star hotel you never say no. Now go and fetch some honey and tell the General Manager to come and see me now.”
When he retired, Peter did his “national service” as he called it. He became chairman of Cape Town Routes Unlimited, the Western Cape’s destination marketing organisation. He put in an enormous amount of very hard work to try to right what was a doomed government organisation. (David Jack also did stints of “national service”, as chairman of the earlier Western Cape Tourism Board and the Cape Town Partnership — which saved Cape Town’s CBD.)
When I look at the response of the tourism industry’s response to the pandemic and government’s nonsensical lockdown regulations I despair! I think to the time of the Pagad shootings at the V&A Waterfront in the mid-1990s and how Mandela asked for a meeting with Waterfront’s management “to make sure his responses were complementary to what the Waterfront was planning.” Mandela went to the Waterfront’s offices for the meeting! When I remarked about this when former tourism minister Derek Hanekom joined me for lunch at Boschendal a few years back, he replied, “The style of government was very different then…” Yes, it was characterised by respect all around and there was integrity to deal with.
When our president (not the ANC president) announced the State of Disaster and the subsequent lockdown, there was national pride that het was showing leadership and taking decisive action. As the regulations rolled out and cabinet members started speaking off the cuff, respect dwindled and died. At his last public address, taking questions from the public in a live Zoom discussion, his national viewership was far less than the tourism industry webinars, and dwindled as the session progressed. He became the emperor with no clothes.
I was critical of the visible leadership from tourism’s representative organisations in the first month. I had held Sisa Ntshona, CEO of SA Tourism, in very high esteem after my interview with him two years ago. it was weeks after Portugal’s epic and moving video about the nation shutting down that Sisa spoke on video. I was aghast. He was uncomfortable, preferring the teleprompter to the camera, and clearly a man without a plan, popularising the word “unprecedented” far beyond anyone else.
It was only after the minister of tourism’s first disastrous Zoom address to the tourism industry, where she called for protocols to enable the industry to open, that things started to happen. The industry should have been banging on her door weeks after the State of Disaster with its plans.
SATSA and Fedhasa did team up under the Tourism Business Council of SA (TBCSA) to produce the protocols and presented them to Parliament’s Tourism Portfolio Committee. What were they expecting? Support for opening to international travel by September, when there are no signs that SA’s pandemic will be under control by then? Will other countries be keen to allow its citizens to travel here while our disaster unfolds? Testing and tracing was supposed to be a cornerstone of SA’s pandemic response, but SA has been less successful than other countries at obtaining test kits. Spain, whose State of Alert preceded SA’s State of Disaster by 2 days, has tested nearly four times the number of people SA has.
The TBCSA presentation to the Portfolio Committee was a disaster. TBCSA was told that they thought it was too soon to open tourism and that when it does open, they want a focus on the BRICS countries. Good old ANC ideology (and the portfolio chair Supra Mahumapelo’s own agenda)!
Much has been made of the lack of government support for tourism and especially white-owned tourism businesses, and government’s goals of Radical Economic Transformation when tourism re-opens. Government is dreaming. Tourism is opening and government hasn’t shown any plan. One thing government has demonstrated is its total inability to understand or run businesses… SAA, Eskom, SABC, Transnet, Prasa, Denel, etc. demonstrate that. It doesn’t have the plan, the money or the competence to implement any Radical Economic Transformation. Only existing businesses and determined new entrants to the industry can do that.
By the tourism minister’s own admission, government’s support for the tourism has been inadequate… because it has no money. And her belated offering to tourist guides — R1500 a month for three months — was like handing out sweeties to keep children quiet.
In When will tourism in SA open again? I wrote about the need to start playing hardball and lawyering up. When it became evident that insurance companies were refusing to pay tourism Business Interruption Claims, TBCSA’s solution was to ask the Minister of Finance to intervene. Oh please! That mentality must change! The TBCSA should have taken a number of test cases to court on behalf of the companies, won, and paved the way for new demands to insurance companies. That would have demonstrated leadership. Now, two companies I know of have already won their court cases with resounding success, providing legal precedent.
I don’t agree with the TBCSA/SATSA/Fedhasa goals and strategies. Opening international tourism in September is a goal with too many imponderables. What state of chaos will SA be in then? Will other countries open their borders to SA? Opening domestic tourism to interprovincial travel now is equally questionable. If the Eastern Cape unfolds into a total disaster, will we see a flood of sick people heading across the provincial border to Plettenberg Bay and Knysna in search of healthcare? Will the Gauteng sick head for home in Limpopo and Northwest, spreading the virus and sickness in provinces ill-equipped to cope?
I wrote about Tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane’s presentation two weeks ago on the conditions for opening tourism businesses in There ARE solutions to safeguard tourism & hospitality jobs! Government doesn’t care. By every interpretation of the regulations since then, her comments during question time were found to be at odds with the law. (You can see a video clip showing her comments at the link above. Listen to the last question… it shook me when it was asked. It was so completely different to all the other questions… was it a planted question?)
Since then, she has ignored media requests for a clarification. On Friday night, the presidency posted the new regulations on its website and on social media… only to delete them on Saturday morning, saying they were an error. First the relaxing of the cigarette ban and then the opening of leisure tourism… only a fool will ever trust Ramaphosa again! Is Supra Mahumapelo setting the agenda? Apparently, changes to the legislation will be published soon.
On Thursday, the Department of Tourism presented their plans to parliament.
The TBCSA must up its gameplan and play hardball. (As I said in my first Coronavirus post all those months ago… Hope is not a Strategy!) We need to listen to Otto Stehlik now, more than ever before. The industry must lawyer up and prepare for a big fight. TBCSA’s strategy cannot only follow a legal route, it needs to raise the public’s understanding of the importance of the industry by embarking on a huge voter education programme that isn’t about party politics and ideology. Tourism needs to have the public on its side.
The ANC has demonstrated over and over again that it doesn’t have the first clue about the economy and business. You can’t have the tail wagging the dog.