‘Working for SAT is like a call up to Bafana Bafana’
Since his appointment as Head West Africa for South African Tourism (SAT), Thekiso Rakolojane has been engaging with stakeholders in the market with the hope of leading the organisation’s destination marketing efforts and expanding strategic business partnerships in Ghana and Nigeria. In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, the spoke on his vision for the market and plans to deepen relationship between South Africa and Nigeria.
How long have you been in the industry?
I’ve been in the tourism and hospitality business for 10 years now. But overall, my career spans a good 20 years of brand and marketing, specifically building brand communication campaigns. So, I’ve worked for the banking industry, I’ve worked with engineering firms such as Siemens, but the tourism space is what really has stuck with me. As I said, of the 20 years of my work life, 10 years of those has been in the tourism space.
How does it feel working for South African Tourism?
South African tourism, being a state owned entity, the work that we do is not really a commercial work. For me, it’s a call to duty as a citizen. For me to be able to market my country to other Africans to come to my country far exceeds everything; it’s one of the things that drive me. It’s national duty; it’s like playing for the national team. This for me is like a call up to Bafana Bafana. I’ve been called to play a role and my role is to invite guests into our home and that role exceeds other previous jobs I’ve done.
As the Head of West African market for SAT, how has your experience been so far?
West Africa has been an area of focus to me for about seven years now. But in the last two year, I’ve been looking after specifically the continent as regards to brands and marketing on behalf of South African Tourism. So, when you see all those brand works into the market, I would have been involved in conceptualizing them and making sure that as a destination, we are well positioned. So, I guess it puts me in the ideal position where I become part of driving the demand in all our efforts in this particular market.
Before being put into this role, I had been supporting this role from a brand and marketing perspective; I’ve been coming in and out of Nigeria and Ghana for the past five years really. My first introduction to the market goes as far back as 2013; I’ve been in Nigeria, I’ve amassed myself into he culture and lifestyle. Having move in now, it’s been a bit of seamless transition for me; I’m adapting quite well. In my first three weeks, the focus has really been about meeting with various key partners and in this case, trade partners and media, where we are able to share ideas with the view of building long-term relationships.
South African Tourism seems to focus more on partnership in doing business here in West Africa, is that a strategy?
Well, partnership to be exact is a strategic focus for us at South African Tourism; it’s actually one of the key pillars of how we drive the business. If you look at out five key strategic pillars, one of the key ones is making sure that we have the strategic partnerships that enable us to win. For example, our mandate is to market the destination, however, we need out travel partners to actually do the fulfillment on our behalf because they put the packages together and sell to Nigerians.
We might have all these innovative marketing campaigns that seeks to attract Nigerians to South Africa, but if we don’t have strong partnerships with the media, we will be unable to share that information. So, partnership with organisations such as The Guardian becomes very important to me in the sense that you become our mouthpiece to the people that we are to communicate with. That for me, going forward, becomes highly critical. It doesn’t start and end; it’s an ongoing exercise. Yes, there might be partnerships, but for me, it’s all about relationships.
Does this in any way influence relationship between Nigerians and South Africans?
You see, Nigeria and South Africa is actually a brotherhood; it’s a brotherhood that goes way back before my time. You know, I was also sharing with a team recently that, if you are one that engages in social media, you would notice there’s almost even a new social media lingo that is forming between Nigerians and South Africans, where they’ve got commonalities; the engagements have become much more cordial. There’s an exchange of experiences, history; just days to day people sharing their lives and creating this digital interconnectivity. And for me, that’s a direct link to the strengthening relationships between both countries. So, it becomes quite critical to ensure that those relationships become symbiotic as well; that South Africans are welcoming when Nigerians visit South Africa. So, it’s something that as South African Tourism, we facilitate through our campaigns. In our campaigns, it’s about us welcoming Nigerians and indulging them. If they are coming into our country, they are our guests; we want to make sure that they having a positive experience.
So, when things like xenophobic attacks happen, they go against that. Historically, we know how that has happened. So, it’s quite encouraging to see how we are now quickly addressing those things. Even the leadership is standing up and saying, ‘this will not happen, it should not be happening because that’s not how we want to be engaging with our counterparts, specifically Nigeria.’
How important is the West African market, particularly Nigeria, to South African tourism?
The West Africa office is the only physical office we have in the continent; that shows you the importance of this market to South African Tourism. Just to give you an indication of numbers, in terms of tourist arrival into South Africa, the continent contributes just over 72 per cent; a big percentage of that comes obviously from the surrounding markets, countries with closer proximity to South Africa. However, what we call our air market, which is where people have to fly into South Africa, Nigeria is by far the biggest contributor to those arrivals into our country. Because of that and the economic impact Nigerians have on South Africa, it therefore necessitated that we open an office here and I can assure you it’s going to be like that for the longest of time.
For most Nigerians hoping to travel to South Africa, visa still remains a major challenge. Are there measures being put in place by the South African government to ease the bottlenecks?
The issue of the visas is actually an ongoing issue; right now, it’s at the presidential level. Just recently, there has been a task team that has been set up to focus on the three key countries with the view of dealing with the issue of visas, which include Nigeria, India and China.
Why these three countries?
Because those are the ones where we currently have the most stringent visa regime. And the question is, how do we remove those barriers? What type of visa concessions can be made? Is it visa on arrival? Is it e-visas? If that’s the case, how does it work considering the various intricacies that are involved in doing that? That’s where this committee is focusing on. So, while that is happening, on a day to day, our job as South African Tourism, in partnership with our principals in the market, The Consular general and High commissioner, is to assist where those bottlenecks do happen under the current dispensation. So, until that has been resolves, we’ve committed ourselves to our partners that we will always make ourselves available to assist where these bottlenecks, reviewing every case on its merit and making sure that anywhere we can intervene, we assist them in getting their visas to the destination.
Unlike when SAT usually marketed cities like Durban, Cape Town and the rest, it appears you are now expanding to countryside?
That’s something we did intentionally. Historically, West Africans, in terms of their preferences of experience in South Africa, has always been quite clear; people like to go to South Africa for shopping, lifestyle and lifestyle events. But the more people transform and they start seeking new things to do, we then started showcasing variety of experiences. For example, one of the big things that are coming up as well is that people like scenic beauty where you get in touch with nature; you go on a long scenic drive and you just absorb it in. So, you will start seeing a lot of that as we showcase it, while still staying true to the original experiences that always attract people in. So, it just gives you the variety of experiences that you can have in South Africa.
Dubai as a destination is coming up strong in this market, how are you dealing with the competition?
From a market share perspective, we still have the lion share of the market by virtue of us having a much wider variety of offerings compared to Dubai; we are a country as against Dubai that sells a city. So, in terms of what you can get in Dubai, it’s not close to what you get in South Africa. However, I think what has really made it easier for Dubai to increase their market share is largely being based on their removal of barriers to travel; the visa issue. In my current engagements with out travel partners, all of them are saying their priority is to sell South Africa, however because of the visa challenges, the alternative then becomes Dubai.
So, where does that leave South Africa?
The challenge with that alternative is that you can’t do it as a repeat business; ones you’ve done that experience ones, to resell it again becomes a challenge because of the limited variety. While for South Africa, you sell it to them ones, they want more because there’s so much more to offer. So, the challenge to us and our partners is, how do we then work towards eradicating that barrier just so that people can come more often and experience more of the country. That for me is where the big job lies for us and certainly where we are going to be focusing on in the near future.
What makes the Nigerian market different?
Firstly, the Nigerian market is quite big and they have high propensity of travel, but their travel partners differ; Nigerians are spontaneous travelers. So, for example, it’s Tuesday today, somebody might decide tomorrow that he wants to travel to South Africa on Saturday. So, the way they buy travel is very unconventional and it becomes very challenging. But that also creates the opportunity for us to see how we adapt to that insight. Yes, they could go anywhere, but how then do we ensure that they travel to South Africa.