Vacation Activated: SA Tourism West Africa Hub Head, Thekiso Rakolojane Speaks On How South African Tourism Is Opening up Its ‘Hidden Gems’ to Tourists

Thekiso Rakolojane OnoBello -9898

Seated between the humps, they ride on the galumphing camels with the grassy vegetations rising and falling with each casual step of the animals. The evening air fills the excited lungs as they expand and contract. The towering mountains in the distance reach out to the radiant sun. The scenery of the greenery is breathtaking with plumaged creatures hovering over the calm sky in celebratory formations. The riders let out shrills of excitement as the gangly animals with large lips and even larger humps take the tourists on joy rides. The savannas are alluring and the beaches are seductive. The fauna and flora converge on their habitats like an orchestra in the theatre. It’s magnificent South Africa.

Beyond the destinations that are often visited by tourists, the country is opening up new vistas. With its new West Africa Hub Head, 40-year-old Thekiso Rakolojane, South Africa Tourism is unveiling the rainbow country’s ‘hidden gems’. Zestful and youthful, the Soweto-born football enthusiast is in Lagos to re-ignite the sparks that keep West Africans coming into South Africa both for pleasure and for business, just as he is working hard to turn any stumbling blocks (such as the challenge of obtaining a visa) into stepping stones. Driven by passion, intuition and a sublime self-belief, Thekiso is looking into the future as he offers an exciting present to travellers to South Africa.

The stakes are high especially as fun-seeking West Africans jettisoning the southern African jewel. Yet, for South African Tourism, the West African markets are critical in order for the organization to achieve the goal of five million tourist arrivals by 2021. Because the potential to grow the region is significant enough to make a big impact to South Africa’s tourism results, Thekiso, a passionate marketing guru is already doing his best to unlock the ”visa mystery” barring the easy entry of West African tourists.

With 20 years’ worth brand management experience, the former SA Tourism regional brand manager (looking after Africa and domestic tourism markets), had worked as the marketing and communications manager at the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa, a business unit operating within SA Tourism and is still the only recognized and globally credible quality assurance body for tourism products in South Africa that other African tourism boards are benchmarking themselves against. In this exclusive interview with Ono Bello, the West African Hub Head of SA Tourism talks about the exciting present and promising future of the organization

OB: As you took over from Hloni Pitso, what does the next phase of South African Tourism look like and the key message you want to pass across?

TK: I think the big message is about continuity. Continuity is quite important to us. A lot of work has been done in the last few years in building the brand and creating a lot of awareness around the destination. So, we want to maintain that high level of awareness and to improve the positivity around the brand. What we found is while a lot of people are aware of South Africa because of the nation and the way we do around the influencers that we host – and the content that we’re putting out there and people have heard and are excited about it – they’re not necessarily that positive about us. So, something about that drives me to move on.

One of the key focus areas for me is to brand management. Being one of my key areas of strength, I’m looking forward to working at building the brand and making it more positive within West Africa. Whilst we understand that there are some challenges around to South Africa, we still want to make sure that when people think of us and think of us as a destination, they have a positive view about us. And I think that’s one of the key areas that we definitely are going to focus on.

OB: How will you communicate all of these to potential visitors and what channels will be used for the communication?

TK: Continuity is a critical thing; so we’ll continue to use brand ambassadors – people call them ‘influencers’. But we prefer to call them ‘brand ambassadors’, particularly those that for over a period of time have become friends of South Africa. In addition, because they’re quite important in communicating to their audiences – and I say ‘audiences’ because they’ve got a diverse group of audiences that are engaging with them on a day-to-day basis whether it’s through Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. So, we’ll continue those types of partnerships and continue sharing information through them.

But I think the key focus around these trips also is that now we’re not going to do the same (thing). It’s not only going to be Cape Town, Johannesburg‎, Durban or the Free State. Maybe there are going to be more of the Free State because that’s one of the areas that we see melancholic interests, particularly around Clarens. However, what has been exciting for me – having done my meetings with the various media as well as trade partners – is the desire to find new things to do in South Africa.

People are saying: ‘I’m quite tired of going to Sandton, Cape Town, and Durban’. For me, that’s exciting because South Africa has a diversity of experiences to showcase. We have what we call ‘our hidden gems’, so look out for trips to the northern capes where we could expose people to camel riding in the desert.

OB: Do you think people from West Africa will like that?

TK: Well, it’s one of the things. Familiarization trips are the most beautiful thing there is. If we try it out, and they resonate with it then we’ll do it. I think the beauty of it at the end of the day is you give people a combination of experiences and then you allow them to choose; that way it’s going to work for them. So, what we don’t want to do is give them the same thing all the time because then it becomes unappealing to them and then they go elsewhere. One of the things that we’ve picked up about West Africans is that they are spontaneous. I want us to be in a position where spontaneity kicks in; we always have something new to do. So it’s not the case where it’s ‘I don’t want to go to South Africa because it’s the same thing’. We need to start showing them a mixture of experiences. I mentioned the camel riding experiences; it’s a thing but it might not be the thing that we do here.

Actually, what I am trying to say is there’s a diversity of experiences that we have that we now need to start showcasing more or giving people an option on what they’re going to do. So, we stick to our current existing platforms but most important you’ll start seeing us more on TV because, for the longest time, we were not on any TV network. We will be on TV with our campaigns running. As a matter of fact, in the next few weeks, we’re trying out a few sports in Lagos, Port Harcourt as well as Accra. You’ll also start seeing quite a lot of out-of-home, our messaging and inviting people to South Africa as well.

As you can see, the work has started now towards building the brand and making it more visible – particularly to many West Africans: Ghanaians and Nigerians. But as time goes on, they’ll also start seeing some innovative works around the way that we do things here also. For example, culture; the way we partner artistes; the way we’ll possibly start partnering measure with the business community because what we’ve also started seeing are huge mentions of corporate particularly from Nigeria. We’ll start doing a lot of corporate travel, communication, and positioning. We’re looking forward to a diverse mix of ways about how we’re going to be communicating. But I think the strategic thing is to maintain the basis of what we’ve been doing well and then introduce other innovative elements.

OB: Many today use their mobile devices for bookings. Some don’t even book hotels before while others do so right on the plane. How are you communicating with once they come into South Africa – for example, businesspeople that are on-the-go?

TK: I think there are two ways that we communicate particularly when people are making travel decisions today in South Africa. One is the traditional way: working with our travel partners where they send their packages. I think that one is a more urbanized way of doing the travel because everything gets done for you. The travel and other logistics – everything – get done. However, to the spontaneous, we have quite a number of diverse partnerships that we have with our domestic team in South Africa. For example, when you get into South Africa and they check you in, through any of the domestic partnerships, you’ll have access to, based on where you are, gives you access to guest houses, B&B (Bed and Breakfast) and hotels that are within the vicinity that you are with a real-time and rate that you’re able to pay. You can rank them by star rating or price.

You also now have access to B&B. The B&B’s starting to showcase the products that are within the vicinity that you are. Those are some of the innovative ways we’ve been working. But we primarily recommend what will work for Africans that have been to South Africa. If it’s your first time, it’s always better to be a partner because they’ve been to the destination. They know their properties, and they’ve been to their properties. Remember, there’s also that misleading online advertisement. You know it could look really pretty, like a five star and when you get there it’s something else. As boring as it is if you’re a first-time always go through the traditional route where you have somebody to assist you with the bookings because nine out of ten times they know their products.

It’s also the issues of security as well that they’re out for you. You don’t have to worry whether the hotel is actually there and whether you find it, get there – your bookings will be made for you. But for spontaneous, it’s about technology and we’ve got the technology to keep us connected through Airbnb and is very popular in South Africa and they have pretty much the entire inventory of tourism products.

OB: You mentioned something about securing visas for Nigerians which can be a struggle. Are there any steps you’re putting in place that’ll allow genuine Nigerian to secure visas easily?

TK: You know the issue of visa is two-fold. Firstly, it’s not a competence of ours. My job is to create a mind for the destination. Then, if people like it – because they’ve seen all those things – and they’re really inspired to travel and the visa halts the flying, then maybe it contributes to that negative perception of us that I noted earlier. Therefore, it has become important to me to make sure that I engage with the people that are responsible for the issuance of visas, which is one of my priority areas. The reason I mentioned that is that this particular issue is being treated by the Presidency with the highest priority.

I’m looking into it in terms of the best way to deal with it. As a matter of fact, we’re part of three countries that are looking at the best ways on how to resolve the issue. How that is going to work we don’t know yet. But the beautiful thing is that it is receiving the right attention and I’m actually dealing with it as it stands. However, whilst that is helping is because it’s right at the presidential level. In terms of the home-going, what I can do is I’ll work with my counterparts that are in the country right now, so through the visa consular, as well as the high commissioner in Abuja. Case by case, we’re approaching them over there. The idea is to have an ongoing engagement with them – we held our first meetings two weeks ago. They’ve committed to sitting (down) with us as well as the travel agents in so that we can start addressing the issues that are causing the declines, the big clock and the withholding of passports.

I believe that if we can get to the cracks of life then we can start communicating with people, then people will know to apply it to the rejections. So, I do hope that this process starts now. I think the first time it happened months ago was that communication through our channels and if make it a bit easier. We might not remove the problem together and I think it’s always better if you know what is expected of you so that when you drop by you’re giving the information that’s needed.

OB: What destinations do you look to as a role model when you think about the tourism development of Africa?

TK: Bali is an example. Most countries in the Asian climate have actually positioned themselves quite positively when it comes to tourism – from a size perspective, not really that big. But the manner in which they position themselves and have enabled tourism in their countries has really worked for them. Many of the likes of Bali have risen to the top and I think there’s a lot we can learn from them. I look at Brazil, the government took the priority stance of investing in infrastructure and they made domestic tourism one of the pillars of their economy.

What it means is even though they’re not getting international tourists, Brazilians themselves are enjoying their country. I think that’s by far the best moral that any tourist destination can adopt. When it comes to a tourism brand as a country, I think America has positioned itself very well and it has even bigger visa challenges than South Africa. It is to the extent that people can say, ‘Notwithstanding the challenges that I go through because the destination is so appealing to me, I’m willing to go an extra mile to get that visa’. And I think that’s where you’ll like to get it in South Africa because South Africa is a destination that has so much to offer. Yet, because West Africans have visa issues, whatever option that becomes available to them they take. That’s why people rather go to Abuja, Dubai, or probably Ghana for a quick trip but if that was removed possibly nine of ten times most people want to go to South Africa. Typically, it’s not that expensive. There’s so much more to do.

OB: What about security concerns visitors might have about coming to South Africa?

TK: I’m actually glad that you mentioned this. You’re the second person that is mentioning the decline in the issue of safety and security in South Africa. It’s because the government has actually taken a proactive stance around making tourists safe in South Africa. As a matter of fact, there is an initiative that has been adopted by the entire tourism community in South Africa which is called the ‘Tourism Safety Initiative’. For me, in terms of being in this market and communicating to the people who might have been affected in the past around the issues of safety, I rely on the likes of yourself in a way, because you are like my mouthpiece to the market.

It’s to firstly narrate your personal experience and articulate the safety that you felt while you were in South Africa. With that, we can reassure people that firstly the issue of safety and security has been taken very seriously and we have (security) measures in place. As a matter of fact, our grading concept makes sure that our security is of high priority when you grade the hotels. So you wouldn’t get to start grading if your security is not in place.

Over and above that, then you have the broader safety community with policemen and all of that. We have taken it seriously, have we totally eradicated it? I wouldn’t say that but I can say that we’ve really done a good job in reducing the trend compared to where it was years ago. It was a really big concern for us. One of the key things I’d like to say is, in the next financial year at South African Tourism, we’re considering innovative things that’ll entice West Africans to South Africa. People can look forward to some really groundbreaking events that will be happening in South Africa that we believe they can come in join – almost at the same level as the Global Citizen Festival. We want to really position ourselves as the go-to destination for events.

OB: What’s your personal and professional background like?

TK: I was born and bred in Soweto which sort of explains my life in Lagos. Lagos is very similar to Soweto. Therefore, the hustle and bustle in my blood. I just turned 40 in March. I’ve been in brand marketing all my life – 20 years of brand marketing experience. From TV to engineering, to banking, and now I’ve ended up in tourism. Dabbled a little bit in the public sector but I didn’t enjoy it that much. Corporate has always been where I honed my skills. Working with South African Tourism in the last 10 years has been quite exciting. In a sense, it’s similar to being called back to the national (football) team. It’s a national duty.

My job is to invite West Africans into South Africa – just like inviting guests into your own home and hosting them. That for me is a very passionate mandate that I’ve been given and I’ve been called to use my expertise in the marketing field to do that. I’m excited about that. I’m versed in business management; so the principles of business management are quite not hard for me – which, I guess, is one of the reasons I was given the role to run this office: to make sure that I will innovate and be creative in the ways and means of how we market and position ourselves as a premium destination for leisure and business events.

At the end of the day, it’s about increasing the number of people that come (South Africa), making them stay longer which obviously then contributes to the economy and most important making sure that they have such an amazing experience that makes them keep coming back.

OB: Your work involves a lot of vacation-type activities – a lot of leisure and pleasure. What do you actually do for fun?

TK: I’m a sports fanatic. I love soccer and golf. I love bolting too. I also love socializing and meeting new people. I really enjoy it, and that is why for example, the West African market is a whole new chapter, not only do I get to meet new people, I get to learn about cultures, new food, doing new things also. I’m quite excited about that and I hope that five to 10 years I am still here, creating families and friends for myself.


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