Glitzy adds showing sun-drenched beaches, or snow-capped mountain peaks with views that stretch as far as the horizon allows. A smiling stewardess pouring a cup of coffee; a food stall next to a bustling street serving exotic cuisine. Tourism as an experience is a commodity – a commodity that sells, but one that is often misunderstood. Not only is tourism a powerful contributor to economic growth, it also helps to sustain our vulnerable ecosystems. At the North-West University (NWU) the research unit Tourism Research in Economics, Environs and Society (TREES) is continuously finding new ways of ensuring that the immense potential of this sector is neither undervalued nor underutilised. The value of the sector for South Africa, as well as for southern Africa, cannot be overstated.
According to Prof Elmarie Slabbert, director of TREES, the value of this sector was again realised during the Covid-19 pandemic: “According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the tourism sector contributed 8,7% to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018, but this declined to 3,7% in 2020. In 2018 this sector employed 1,5 million people, which declined to 1,06 million in 2020. The sector itself contracted by 73% and several businesses closed, which led to job losses and loss of income. The significant contribution is clear from these figures, as is people’s dependence on the sector. It is also important to know that 80% of tourism businesses are small businesses that cannot absorb a setback such as Covid, and therefore this industry was one of the hardest hit by this unforeseen event. Our research contributes to building a more resilient sector that will act differently moving forward. In the case of South Africa, there is now a better understanding of the importance of the domestic market and its role as the backbone of the sector. Even though international tourists contribute significantly to this sector, it will be important to encourage local travel in the next few years.”
TREES’ focus is aimed at furthering the scholarly standing of tourism as a field of research and at assisting the tourism sector in becoming more resilient and sustainable. Some projects focus on the travel behaviour of tourists by developing mechanisms that can predict behaviour and choices. Other projects focus on research relating to specific types of tourism products such as game reserves, festivals and events, booking platforms and more. In these types of studies, researchers determine the economic contribution of the product to the sector, the marketing profiles of tourists and visitors using these tourism products and the effect of these on the communities where they are presented and hosted.
This forms part of the NWU’s commitment to helping to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), of which SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), SDG 15 (Life on Land) and SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals) are especially relevant. These three goals focus, in order, on the promotion of sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all, the protection and restoration of our ecosystems, and the strengthening of global partnerships for sustainable development.
“Tourism is one of the most important sectors to create job opportunities, improve the lives of South Africans and sustain our natural resources for generations to come,” explains Prof Slabbert.
This dedication to promoting sustainability extends beyond South Africa’s borders.
“Research outcomes gain more depth when this is done with partners beyond the entity and the country. Working with different people across the world leads to creative solutions to research problems, it leads to capacity building of researchers, and it is putting the research done by TREES on an international platform. We form part of the International Competence Network in Tourism, where partners meet once a year to discuss research and possible projects. We also engage with top researchers at selected conferences and conduct research visits at international universities to encourage collaboration and interaction. The success of these collaborations is evident in the growth of the research unit.”
By applying the three sustainability pillars of economics, environs and social factors in different fields of tourism research from both a demand and a supply perspective, TREES’ research is helping to enable South Africa to grow as a tourist destination, to strengthen the country’s brand as a tourism destination and its GDP. At the NWU, the sustainable apple does not fall far from the TREES.