BUILDING SA TOURISM’S SUSTAINABLE FUTURE

The three little pigs taught us valuable lessons in building properties that endure. When attacked by little more than wolf breath, the straw and wooden houses fell – the house built from bricks survived. In tourism and hospitality, with the wolves of a wavering economy, water shortages and other challenges circling, it’s imperative to focus on sustainability as a governing rule, to ensure that we’re building an impenetrable foundation.

The growth challenge

There has been a season of healthy growth in the tourism sector, and businesses have done what businesses are designed to do: capitalise on growth by investing and developing to increase capacity. An “if you build it, they will come” approach has worked, to a degree, but what we’re facing across SA is something that we may not have built into our business strategies: a leak-proof sustainability solution.

The water crisis as faced by many tourism hubs across the country has revealed this shortcoming. It was predictable that burgeoning developments would need this resource, and yet we’re caught on the back foot in many ways. All’s not doom and gloom, though; crisis management and scenario planning for the future can, and must, ease us out of the crisis.

The intensity of the water crisis can blinker us against a holistic view of the future – one that takes into account many other factors that can influence tourism and the hospitality sector. There is an immediate need to reduce consumption to promote recovery, but reducing consumption is not the only way out.

Sustainability in tourism

Water-friendly buildings and practices, built and natural environments that promote responsible tourism and universal access: these are our tools. There’s a cost element to this that is a challenge to recoup when applying these principles retroactively, especially on large-scale building developments and businesses, but the investment is non-negotiable.

Business is, by its very nature, competitive: we’re all seeking to have our brands and products top-of-mind with consumers. Competition should lead to creativity and innovation as a response.

How can we be the very best? By renewing what we have on offer, adding value at every turn and adapting to consumer preferences. Ideally, we should be doing all of this before our market even knows what we’re doing, in order to stay ahead.

The sector provides employment for nine percent of the employed population, and contributes to the success of other sectors such as construction, supply chains, etc. To remove tourism’s contribution to the economy would jeopardise an entire country’s hopes of growing the GDP.

The unfortunate reality of competitive behaviour is that it’s a double-sided coin. In a crisis such as the water shortages, smaller businesses will take any knock to the bottom line hard. To use a boxing metaphor, a small business focusing on water as central to the product offering will go down in the first round. A bigger business with perhaps less of a focus on water can last a few more rounds, until the collective assault, i.e. loss of custom, will also knock it out of the ring.

Survival tactics for future domination

The tactician will analyse what’s facing us and make astute corrections to what we’re doing, from reducing water usage to changing business plans, but the next step is getting beyond what faces us currently to preparing for the future. That means marketing our businesses as viable (and ensuring they are) to a market that’s hesitant. Let’s say we’re in the second round of this: we need to play beyond the endgame to the next tournament.

Critics will say it’s irresponsible to market tourism at a time when the country is seeking to ensure that our own residents have access to water, but the truth of the matter is that our economy is closely linked to the success of tourism. The sector provides employment for nine percent of the employed population, and contributes to the success of other sectors such as construction, supply chains, etc. To remove tourism’s contribution to the economy would jeopardise an entire country’s hopes of growing the GDP.

The solution is in aligning marketing tourism alongside sustainability. Cape Town, in particular, has done much to combat water shortages in the midst of a crisis. Hotel groups and other businesses are leading the way in this – so much so, that other big destinations such as Venice and Bangalore, facing a similar challenge, are looking to the city for best practice guidelines.

The reality is that we’re short on water, but the added reality is that we’re capable of driving sustainability in tourism in ways that have never been done before, generating a narrative that will allow room for growth.

The third little pig built his house out of bricks and overcame the challenge of the wolf. We need to build an impenetrable defence, now.

Danny Bryer is the area director of sales, marketing and revenue management for Protea Hotels by Marriott.

This article was first published by HuffPost SA on 1 March 2018