South Africa Outbound to Asia: What Needs to Happen Next?
Following the inaugural World Travel Market (WTM) Africa in Cape Town this month, Khiri Travel Thailand General Manager, Andre van der Marck, and Khiri Travel Cambodia General Manager, Jack Bartholomew, pinpoint what needs to be done to help South African tourists travel to Asia more.
Some 5.7 million South Africans traveled abroad in 2013. Euromonitor International expects that to rise to 6.9 million by 2017. Numbers to Asia are small — but rising. South Africa’s middle class is growing quickly and embracing overseas leisure travel. About 10% of South Africa’s population travels abroad each year. Euromonitor predicts that South African outbound will grow at an average of 4% per year until 2016.
How would you describe potential South African demand for Asian tour products?
AvdM: There is an emerging demand for sure. Buyers commented on how people wanted to travel to Asia. For South African travel agents, Asia is sill perceived as being off the beaten track. This year, Thailand will attract about 21,000 South Africans, Hong Kong 9,000, China 8,000 and India 25,000 – although many of them are visiting friends and relatives. South Africans tend to travel to neighboring countries such as Swaziland, Botswana and Namibia – or to the UK if longhaul. South Africa is an untapped market. Based on these numbers, there is plenty of potential.
Africa is a massive place with multiple markets. Why South Africa?
JB: South Africa is the logical start point. GDP per capita is the highest among medium or large African countries. The last 20 years since the end of apartheid has seen rapid economic growth. Outbound tourism grew 24% in 2011, but shrank to 2% in 2012 due to the rand devaluing. When the rand is strong, South Africans travel. And it shows. In Q1 this year Thailand reported a 22% increase in South African visitors. For Cambodia, South Africa represented 74% of all African arrivals in the first two months of 2014.
What kind of South African travelers should Asian tour operators target first?
AvdM: Frequent independent travelers (FITs) who want to travel for a length of time, at least two weeks, and experience Asia to its full. It’s quite an investment to travel from South Africa to Asia.
What’s your assessment of the air linkages between South Africa and Asia?
JB: Asian carriers, THAI, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines offer direct links between Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore and Johannesburg, South Africa’s main gateway. Middle Eastern carriers such as Etihad, Emirates, Qatar and Gulf Air are good options, especially for Phuket. South Africa Airlines has direct services between Johannesburg and Bangkok, Colombo, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Singapore, Osaka and Taipei. Connectivity between South Africa and Asia is therefore quite good.
What surprised you most about WTM in South Africa?
AvdM: How upbeat the people were and how receptive they were to the idea of traveling in Asia. Asia is still a relatively emerging destination for African agents. Travel agents were eager to know more about the region and travel options. There is genuine interest in our part of the world.
How would inbound tour operators need to adapt to service South African markets well?
AvdM: Flexibility is important. Asian operators should put an emphasis on full itineraries, with all excursions included and plenty of off the beaten track niche products. General knowledge about our region is limited. So we should educate South African travel agents with images, maps and familiarization trips. We need to provide them with background information like cultural do’s and don’ts on Asia, main airports, available border crossings, transfer and flight times.
What were the key questions that South African travel buyers were asking at WTM?
JB: Is Asia safe? I think there is still, ironically, a misconception that Asia is not a safe place to travel. Other questions were focused on routings and how easy it is to travel from one country to another. Also, visas and the best time to travel were frequent subjects. There is a misconception that visitors should only visit Asia between November and February.
Are we talking only about South African demand for Asia, or does Asian demand for South Africa have to go hand in hand?
AvdM: Some Asians are already visiting Africa for bush safaris. Asians can do combinations with shopping stopovers in the Middle East. Expats in Asia can look at bush and beach combinations. Wine tourism in South Africa has potential too.
What are the visa challenges for African tourists interested in Asia?
JB: It’s a mixed picture. The following destinations don’t require a visa for South African travelers: Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Other Asian destinations do.
What are the key take-away points you learned from your trip to WTM Africa?
JB: People from South Africa want to travel more to new places, such as Asia. People are looking for something different other than Europe.
What needs to be done next?
AvdM: Asian operators need to reach out to South African based travel retailers and help them with relevant materials and knowledge so that they can confidently sell Asia to their clients. The interest is there. We just need to develop it with innovative programs. Based on this year’s experience, Khiri Travel plans to return to WTM Africa in 2015.