By Rachel Irvine
The announcement of the discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa, just days before the country’s peak tourism season last year, only served to further the misery the sector has experienced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns.
As the industry looks to recovery after a number of crises ranging from load shedding and water shortages to crime and corruption, which has now been laid bare in the Zondo Commission’s report on SAA, SAA technical and ground handling services, rebuilding South Africa’s brand as a tourism destination will require the government and the sector to work together to address a number of issues.
Invest in developing skills
The tourism and aviation sectors are vast and require a number of skills to function, from foreign language skills and marketing to information and communications technology skills and pilots and engineers for our aircraft.
An investment in skills by both the government and the sector will help nurture and retain the key skills needed for recovery and growth.
The aviation industry, for instance, has a high number of people over the age of 40, and with international companies recruiting from South Africa, skills and talent shortages are real.
According to Boeing’s latest Pilot and Technician Outlook, Africa will require 63 000 new pilots, aircraft technicians and cabin crew over the next 20 years.
The report also indicates that in the short term, technicians will be in high demand, stating: ”As air traffic demand increases and aeroplanes are brought out of storage, technicians will play a vital role in inspecting, repairing and restoring aircraft to an airworthy state.
“While technicians have undertaken aeroplane storage and engine preservation efforts over the past year, the next few years will require additional labour focused on bringing aeroplanes out of storage and back into service.”
Invest in infrastructure
The government has identified infrastructure spending as a key pathway to economic growth and job creation.
However, the pandemic and years of major fiscal cuts have meant many of these projects have been put on ice.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research estimates that in 2021, South Africa experienced 1 136 hours of load shedding, so aside from key infrastructure to support tourism like rail, roads and airports, the government must prioritise energy security.
Two of South Africa’s biggest airports, OR Tambo in Johannesburg and Cape Town International, were on track for upgrades before the pandemic.
However, these have been delayed as the Airports Company of South Africa suspended capital expenditure projects. These upgrades will allow for bigger planes to land, more visitors to be processed and more tourism opportunities.
A major obstacle to investment in infrastructure has been State capture, with billions of rand funnelled out of projects at state-owned entities like Eskom, SAA and Transnet, impacting energy security, South Africa’s national airline, and resulting in poorly maintained rail infrastructure which cannot support tourism.
The first section of the Zondo Commission report, released earlier this month, details corrupt dealings in the aviation industry at SAA, SAA Technical and in the awarding of their ground handling contracts.
The Zondo report found that SAA, under the leadership of Dudu Miyeni, operated “under a cloud of fear, intimidation, secrecy and paranoia, when a public entity should be operated transparently and with accountability to the South African people who fund its operations”.
The report also raised serious concerns about the R1 billion ground handling contract awarded to international company Swissport, stating “in the light of this substantial evidence that corrupt payments were made to secure the ground-handling contract with SAA, the commission will recommend that the National Prosecuting Authority consider prosecutions of all those involved in these transactions.”
The government has spent billions in bailouts for national carrier SAA over the past decade, and while private-public partnerships aimed at investment and funding are necessary, other partnerships can increase profits, productivity and innovation.
An example is the partnership between SAA and Kenya Airways signed in November last year, which is set to focus on growing passenger traffic, increase cargo and ultimately, grow trade and investment between the two nations.
The Western Cape’s Air Access project, a partnership between six government entities and the private sector, has also shown its worth in expanding the number of airlines operating flights into and out of Cape Town International, adding 750 000 inbound seats between the project’s launch in 2015 and early 2020.
Data from the International Air Transport Association shows in the first week in December, when major Omicron travel bans were put into effect, the number of refunds requested for international travel to South Africa exceeded the number of tickets sold, creating an extremely rare situation where the country had negative net bookings.
This has all created a perfect storm it will take years to recover from.
Rachel Irvine is the chief executive at Irvine Partners.
*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.
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