Attracting tourists to South Africa is a task that’s been completed tenfold by the beautiful city of Cape Town, being named the number one favourite city in Africa and the Middle East for the 17th year running by Travel + Leisure’s 2018 reader’s poll.
As one of the major international gateways to Africa, South Africa is benefiting from the growth in global tourism more than most African countries due to its healthy mix of a stunning location, diverse culture and economic lure for business travellers.
In one of Nomad Africa’s most intriguing and certainly in-depth interviews yet, we speak with former Co-Chair of Skywise Airline and current Chairman of BRICS Aviation Working Group on a broad range of topics including his lessons in running a low cost airline, how to capitalize on tourists’ desires to travel more across the continent and the future of South Africa’s travel industry.
Nomad Africa: Every destination wants more tourists but South Africa is slowly growing those numbers by learning to tap in to different markets like younger travellers. What are some of the lessons that you learned in running a low cost airline. What works and what doesn’t work?
Javed Malik: Air travel in Africa as a whole is a hot subject on everybody’s mind, and it’s been on our minds for quite a long time. It is moderately more expensive compared to European and American markets. As such, many people would still prefer to take a sixteen hour bus ride from Johannesburg to Cape Town instead of a two hour flight.
South Africa is a very unique market and we have learned some important lessons from running a low cost airline. For example, every cent matters. It is not enough to create a system and expect every day to function in that manner. Each day brings a set of new challenges and knowing how those challenges impact the expenses and revenue is critical to success.
We’ve learned the importance of effective leadership. The entrepreneurial style of taking risks and being quick to make decisions is so important in the airline business, or any business for that matter. Some leaders can get stuck in the corporate way of doing things, like long and slow processes to making decisions, and not willing to be innovative in how challenges are solved. Growing your market share is a hard climb uphill. Being an agile leader will make or break your business.
Nomad Africa: What’s one mistake you’ve made when it comes to running an airline?
Malik: We learn from our mistakes and yes there were a few we faced along the way. While there are no mistakes that jump out at me, one thing that is clear is the importance of skills development and skills transfer in the younger generation. This is something every leader in aviation needs to put more effort into. There is a shortage of experienced pilots, yet you will find the cost of pilot training is over R1 million. Which young and ambitious African has that kind of money laying around? So you will find the aviation leaders hold all the skills and knowledge to navigate the industry and there’s a big divide to developing the youth.
Nomad Africa: What about looking forward? The African market is young and is obviously evolving. What are some of the trends you see that pan-African destinations have to consider for the future. Are travelers’ habits changing at all? Are a different sector of African citizens traveling?
Malik: That’s a very good question.
There’s a change looming and it is very noticeable when it comes to the “independent traveller.” These are younger people who are engaged and responsive to technology. Younger people are comfortable using apps as guides and traveling alone backpacking from one location to another. You’ll see multiple Instagram accounts of young people sharing their travel experiences and in turn motivating other young travellers to visit local destinations. This is not to say that group travel is dead, but these new trends tie back to social networking and the way that tourism boards, tour operators and transport owners market a city through social channels.
Nomad Africa: In your view, what role does the government play in attracting more tourists?
Malik: You know, the government has a big role to play. Not just in policy making but also in showcasing the country as being open for business. In 2015, visa restrictions were put in place to curb child trafficking but this has made coming into the country much harder. Travellers become averse visiting countries that offer long waiting periods and piles of paperwork to be submitted prior to making the trip. But now the government plans to overhaul its limitations to woo visitors. In addition, government can invest in marketing its destinations more widely. Look at SA Tourism and how it has been pushing the “Sh’ot Left” campaign to drive more South Africans to travel within the country. Imagine that same push on a global scale!
If you look at the national carrier, it is in a shaky position. But we must realize, SAA fulfills a bigger function than just carrying passengers from one destination to the next. The national carrier is a brand and first touch point to the world. It is therefore important for the management of the airline to think innovatively, respond quicker to challenges and boost internal transformation.
Visitors are getting to know a lot about South Africa from what they see in the movies and on the news but the message isn’t always one that we want to portray. We want to make sure that South Africa isn’t just seen as a violent nation. There are so many cultural and wildlife opportunities to take advantage of. South Africa has beaches, deserts, safaris and even something for the city slicker. Government and tour operators should be working together to develop itineraries for young travelers who seek the hidden gems and unchartered destinations.
Nomad Africa: The desire to live like a local is trend that we’re seeing around the world. What are your thoughts on the impact of technology on Africa’s travel industry and the opportunities that it provides visitors looking for a more local experience?
Malik: Technology makes it more cost effective for us to promote who we are and what we have to offer business and leisure travellers. Apps like Instagram and AirBnB make it easier for the ordinary person to share their story. Each distinct city has its own story to tell. We need to encourage each other to keep telling those stories.
Nomad Africa: You are the Chairman of the BRICS Aviation Working Group. What are your goals and what have you achieved so far?
Malik: One of our many roles is to promote regular dialogue between the business communities in aviation of the BRICS nations and the Governments of the BRICS countries, identifying problems and providing innovative solutions to ensure greater economic trade and investment ties, maximising opportunities for the benefit of the aviation industry and the country. BRICS includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
What was monumental for us was the signing of the MOU earlier this year. It puts the aviation industry at the center of focus and provides an opportunity for people to get a close look at what’s going on. My outlook is that the public sector is going to work alongside the traditional aviation community in providing solutions for the travel and tourism industry and that will result in higher visitation for the BRICS nations.
If we could break it down, the purpose of the MoU is to promote the comprehensive development of regional aviation cooperation between the BRICS countries. It will establish an institutional framework for cooperation on civil aviation issues, including regional connectivity policies and practices, air navigation services, airport infrastructure management, qualification and training, plus civil aviation regulations and regulatory agencies. We are working on a process to make sure that airlines work effectively and efficiently.
Nomad Africa: What would you suggest to other African countries to encourage tourism on the continent? How can that dynamic be improved?
Malik: We need greater collaboration. Each country cannot work in isolation, we need to work together to attract more visitors. As one of the major gateways into the continent, South Africa has the advantage when it comes to having the resources to boost tourism. When people travel easily across the continent, they spend more on goods and services, they expose the local community to fresh skills and they drive us to expand the range of goods and services we have to offer. That kind of collaboration and participation can jump start economies.