Digital Content

Last year, in addition to the already buzzing internal tourism industry, 7,3-million foreigners visited South Africa. For the most part, our tourism industry operates efficiently, with the result that a large percentage of our foreign visitors return home happy with their holiday and ready to recommend our country to other potential visitors.

Through this referral-type system, South Africa’s tourism industry has had the luxury of developing at a slow and steady pace, creating infrastructure if and when the need arises. However, it may be in for a bit of a shock in 2010, when 2-million people arrive at its airports for the World Cup. Luckily South Africa has four years to prepare.

Hotels absorb a large percentage of tourists. Stats SA reported in 2004 that its hotels had a national capacity of 221,000 beds. Although more will certainly be built in the next few years, a large percentage of 2010 visitors will, out of necessity, turn to the smaller accommodation facilities for their accommodation needs. In fact, a 2005 South African Tourism study revealed that the average amount of money spent per tourist has increased since 2003, despite the decreased number of nights spent in hotels. According to the report, the increased spend was largely driven by more tourists staying at guesthouses and bed and breakfasts. Additionally, it is increasingly the trend among travellers to be a bit more intrepid and move away from the cities into the more rural and picturesque areas. These regions are largely serviced by the smaller accommodation facilities like guesthouses and B&Bs.

Testament to this trend, which is apparent in both the internal and external tourism industry, is that the guesthouse industry has expanded to offer 11,100 stay units and now generates over R58m worth of income. This is one area of our tourism industry which has the potential to play a substantial role in future tourism, but in order to do so, it needs a little more attention.

On the whole, the standard of service and infrastructure in these smaller accommodation facilities is good. However, this sector of the industry is still lagging, with most proprietors running their businesses in the technological dark ages. The B&B industry must aim to operate on a global standard, specifically in terms of the internet and even more specifically in terms of secure internet-based payment systems.

Research shows that 40% of foreign visitors plan their overseas trips on the internet, with the figure rising rapidly. South Africans are also increasingly planning their holidays and weekend getaways using the internet. A web presence, however small, offers owners of these smaller accommodation sites direct access to the internet-using market. There is no doubt that a slick and efficient website implies a certain level of infrastructure, efficiency, service and credibility. Guests are also able to visually connect with the establishment, seeing the rooms, the views and the facilities. This is a great selling point for those who want a clear idea of where they are staying.

But only a small percentage of our guesthouses and B&Bs have websites. Of these, many say that their website or web presence has positively affected business. However, even those with a website are not maximising the convenience it can offer. It is vital that the potential guests experience this convenience in terms of making queries, bookings and payments, without ever having to pick up the phone. By offering this kind of convenience -- using the website as a point of communication where people can request quotes, make inquiries, make a payment and generally interact with the proprietor -- a guesthouse is effectively elevating their game. Not only are they putting themselves on the map, but by offering such quick and efficient service, potential guests will be encouraged to follow their requests through with a booking.

In addition to having an Internet presence, foreigners are accustomed to high levels of security when making payments from a remote point. Guesthouse owners often ask potential guests to fax, e-mail or phone through their credit card details. Being asked to divulge this information in such a haphazard way often leads to guesthouse owners losing the booking. Additionally, trying to ascertain swift numbers for international banking and paying the massive fees of international electronic funds transfers may also be offputting.

Ultimately, there are options for these guesthouse owners and the onus is now on them to raise their game and provide first-class facilities, beyond a great breakfast and a comfortable bed, using their websites to reflect the quality of their facility.

Business Day