Solving the municipal mystery: why local government is failing tourism

In an opinion piece* published in October, 2015, the DA’s shadow minister of tourism, James Vos, pointed out that, “in South Africa, local governments and municipalities have allowed the decay of numerous tourism sites…”

The problem with municipal caravan parks and other tourism assets: officials don’t understand tourism
The problem with municipal caravan parks and other tourism assets: officials don’t understand tourism

He said he’d “submitted a Parliamentary question to the national tourism department,” and that in response, the DA “was informed that an audit had been conducted that identified approximately 700 resorts that were not being optimally utilised.”

James has personally visited many of these facilities in small towns around the country, and he’s generally found that they’ve “become dysfunctional, dilapidated and poorly managed. This is deplorable, given the fact that these resorts, which were built with taxpayers’ money, are consequently becoming a huge liability for these municipalities.”

His proposed solution is that “they should be converted into budget holiday destinations in partnership with the private sector.”

But would that be enough?


James believes that tourism and agriculture are the two things that stand out as having the capacity to fix the economies of so many of those small South African towns – but that they cannot do so unless local government gets the basics of service delivery right.

“Some municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal didn’t – couldn’t – provide water because of various reasons, and tourism in those towns has come to an end. Guest houses, bed-and-breakfasts, tour guides, the local curio shops, the traders – everybody has simply just closed shop because of the municipality’s inability to deliver its services.”

This makes sense, but it’s beyond the scope of the tourism sector’s sphere of influence.

Still, the sector isn’t powerless.

“Tourism is a private sector initiative that shouldn’t be suffocated with municipal policies. The municipality must simply set the framework – like in Cape Town, like we’ve done in many other parts of the country – and we need to do the same at top level, too,” said James.

James said that the National Department of Tourism has made tentative steps towards building capacity at local level – the commissioning and publication in 2010 of a draft ‘South African Tourism Planning Toolkit for Local Government,’ for example, or the Local Government Tourism Conference that took place in Johannesburg in February 2013.

And, with domestic tourism having recorded 500,000 less trips in 2014-2015 compared to the previous year, it’s time to dust these initiatives off, and pursue them in earnest. (In James’ mind, the approaches to marketing to foreign and domestic tourists need to be very different. Correctly so, of course.)

Municipal officials, he said, need to understand their role.

“They’ll often do what they think is right, but they’re more than often incorrect, because this is a specialist-driven sector, and it cannot be a municipal-driven sector.”

It’s important, too, that municipalities should, “not see tourism as the leisure activity of their towns,” but rather, “see tourism as the money-spinner of their towns.”

Market ready

And this, of course, is where the tourism sector can make a difference.

According to Greg Vogt, CEO of Knysna’s destination marketing organisation,Knysna & Partners**, tourism development and the road to sustainability in business begin with market readiness.

“Travel and trade aren’t going to happen if you just want them to; they’ll only happen if the market wants them. So the secret to developing destinations lies in understanding demand – and planning and training to meet it.”

And understanding demand, he said, is something only the private sector can properly do.

His strategy for Knysna is to “(a) identify the talent that we have in the community, (b) identify the physical assets that we have – like Pledge Nature Reserve (a 10 hectare community reserve in the CBD), or the Old Gaol Museum Complex, and (c) gauge demand by, for example, consulting with successful local businesses to learn what their guests are looking for – and then find ways of unlocking the value that’s created when you bring them all together.”

Once the parts are in place, he said, businesses can thrive.

This is a position with which James agrees.

“Many towns built caravan parks and municipal resorts in the past – usually at the most desirable locations – and these were deemed strategic assets of the municipalities.”

As such, they were once important money-spinners – but now we need “new and innovative concepts” to take existing assets forward.

James cited the example of the Witzenberg Municipality, which worked closely with Transnet and the private sector over a period of more than two years to put tourist steam trains onto disused tracks on the weekends – and found that they could use the tracks for transporting fruit during the week, too.

“The lesson learned is that solutions came from sitting down with all the players,” said James.

He said that he’ll be tabling two major items in his Budget Vote in Parliament on 3 May, 2016 that will deal with the problems of affordability and limited geographic spread in domestic tourism, and that will begin to address the challenge of building capacity amongst local municipalities.

It’s going to be very interesting to hear what he has to say.

* ‘Letter to the editor: Municipalities’ neglect of tourist sites is deplorable’ was published on Southern African Tourism Update, 5 October, 2015

** Disclosure: I live in Knysna, served on the committees of the old Knysna Publicity Association and the Knysna Tourism Bureau (which later became Knysna & Partners), and now work from time to time as a paid consultant for Knysna & Partners. MH

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This Tourism Week

I’m Martin Hatchuel, a tourism practitioner with more than 30 years of experience in the sector, and I write and publish This Tourism Week as an informed, insightful look at issues affecting tourism in South Africa.

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And have a great tourism week!

Martin Hatchuel
Chartered Public Relations Professional

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