For the first time in as many years as I can remember, I was absent from the Vodafone Ghana Music Awards. Which also meant that I missed the beauty and suave of the world famous Red Room, for the first time.
I tried to follow by watching the Vodafone live stream on YouTube, but my allocated internet bundle had run out before Berla and the bearded guy would leave the red carpet and hand over to Naa and Nii (well, Chris is Ga so he is definitely a Nii) to start the main show.
Of course, you win some and you lose some and the reason I was absent was because I was in Durban, South Africa for INDABA, the tourism trade show organised by South Africa Tourism. It was a gathering of the titans of the tourism industry from across Africa and the world.
I was one of five members forming the Ghana team that comprised four travel and tourism practitioners and two media people. Myself and Abeiku Santana represented the media and the others were Mrs. Nancy Quartey-Sam (TOUGHA President), Ahmed Naaman (Dodi Travel and Tours CEO), Selina Boampong (HaBo World Travels) and Victoria Martinson (Travel Bureau). There was also a team from Nigeria that joined Ghana to form a West Africa team.
Ahead of INDABA, the team from West Africa had a four-day tour of interesting destinations and wonderful experiences in different provinces and cities across South Africa. It was meant to give them hands on experience to enable them sell South Africa better.
Among the places visited and activities experienced are the Kloofzicht Lodge & Spa, the Cradle of Humankind, hot air balloon experience, Lion Park, Lesedi Cultural Village, Sun City, Pilanesberg Game Reserve, boat ride in Durban among others.
All these experiences came heavy plus being accommodated in four and five star facilities, massages and having lunches and dinners at high end restaurants and entertainment centres were paid for by SA Tourism.
As much as we appreciate the largess of our host, it is more importantly the lessons from INDABA that I believe should engage our attention and I want to share a few of them succinctly.
• Open and frank conversations lead to actionable results: After the formal opening of INDABA last Saturday, there was a discussion with the panel that included both the Minister for Tourism of South Africa, Derek Hanekom and his Deputy, Ms Tokozile Xasa, and moderated by CNN’s Richard Quest.
It was an open conversation with no-holds-barred positioning. Quest asked everyone present to ask any question at all they want and the¬¬ minister and his team would answer. He posed some tough ones himself and got into arguments with some of the panel members and audience.
This forum threw up different issues about the local tourism initiatives, regional and pan-continental tourism including South Africa’s xenophobic riots, visa regime, what would be done with South Africa Airways, whether to brand Africa as one or not, among others.
The lesson here is that as much as we can, we should have a frank conversation with the people we have tasked to run our public institutions and let them give feedback on what they may be doing. Especially for the tourism industry we need to know what is being done.
• Some countries take tourism promotion a lot more serious: INDABA is one of the biggest tourism trade shows on the African content. It brings together several companies and individuals in travel and tourism across the value chain in Africa and elsewhere.
There were 5,013 exhibitors who took part in the show this year and although this was about 213 less compared to last year, the 14,000 meetings which took place during the three-day event were 3,000 more compared to the previous year’s figure. Lindiwe Rakharebe, CEO of Durban International Convention Centre (ICC) said 96 percent of the space was taken up by exhibitors and that shows how successful the event was.
Most importantly, we learned that it is not just companies, big or small, in the tourism space who take INDABA seriously, but also countries. Those tourism authorities who are serious in promoting their countries as preferred tourism destinations were present.
Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Rwanda, etc. all had stands where they presented to the thousands of people who showed up what was on offer in their countries, tourism wise.
• Organisation is important: From the airport right to every nook and cranny of Durban, it was evident that something was happening in town and the local people were aware that their city was hosting the world.
The importance of event organisation was well demonstrated by SAT in the way they ensured availability of shuttle buses from the airport to the hotels, shuttle buses at the hotels to the venue, timely pick ups from the venue to the hotels, the planning of the event venue, allocation of computers to the media, provision of material and internet, provision of photos for press immediately after taking and the whole nine yards of thinking through every single element was amazing.
There is a lesson for us all in that we need to think through properly all aspects of events we plan to ensure that all boxes are painstakingly ticked correctly to give the best of experiences to those who take part in it.
• Eastern and Southern Africa are far ahead in the tourism game: At one of the sessions with the media, a seasoned documentary producer who had travelled the entire Africa and CNN award-winning television producer, Angus Begg made a comment about Zambians being the most welcoming people on the continent.
During question time, I pushed back and said I believe Ghanaians were more welcoming of others than citizens of any other country. He then agreed that Ghanaians are welcoming, but our governments have not understood tourism. He said the things that had to be done for tourism to thrive were not being done.
This thinking seems to be pervasive among people who have had the privilege of traveling across the continent. They are convinced that governments in West Africa are only interested in taxes and not the things that would bring in the tourists.
•Taking advantage of opportunities: The UN body responsible for tourism, World Tourism Organisation estimates that Africa would over double its visits from three percent in 1980 to seven percent by 2030. That figure means the 50 million visitors received will increase to 130 million.
The question becomes how we take advantage of this opportunity. How can we compete with the other more serious countries to position ourselves to benefit from this statistics? How are we going to improve wildlife which is a big draw for tourists? How can we capitalise on our strengths and core competences to our benefit? How do we improve on facility grading?
As it is now, we have not come to party, but we have the opportunity to improve and take advantage of the new opportunities tourism would create for the economy.