Specialisation to boast tourism: Key tourism lessons from China

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By: Mofuoa Mofuoa

LESOTHO is characterised as the highest country in the world. Many people call it a Kingdom in the sky or Roof of Africa. Stretches of rugged mountains, deep gorges and valleys are spread across the country.

The weather is moderately warm in summer, whereas frozen snow covers mountain peaks and valleys in winter. The polarised climatic conditions create harmony and natural balance, and less pollution makes an enjoyable atmosphere filled with fresh air. These unique features make Lesotho the ultimate tourism destination.

Unfortunately, the tourism industry suffers from stagnation or even real decline. In the past, foreign tourists enjoyed the natural scenic beauty and wilderness of the mountainous kingdom. They watched a variety of animal species roaming endless hills and different bird species which flew in tranquillity across the blue skies.

Tourist attractions including Afri-Ski resort; Roof of Africa Rally; Katse and Mohale dams etc have not increased traffic of tourists on our national borders and domestic road networks.  The government considers the tourism industry as an important pillar of economic growth for job creation.

Policymakers have rightly or wrongly blamed the sluggish rate of growth on the limited sources of tourist attractions; lack of adequate investment in public infrastructure such as tarred road networks and electricity throughout the country etc. This perspective is based on the notion that roads and electricity will facilitate access to tourist attractions or stimulate private investments in hotel accommodations across the country – fair enough.

On my recent visit to China, I discovered that irrespective of the supply of public goods i) tourism always begins at home ii) specialization is essential to develop competitive advantage in a global tourism market.

I toured the Forbidden City and Great Wall in Beijing of which are the most popular tourist attractions in China. I expected meeting foreigners from different parts of the world. But I was pleasantly surprised to encounter more Chinese tourists wherever I went! A significant number of Chinese tourists gathered at the Forbidden City on an extremely cold day in winter. They were pushing and scuffling to enter the eclectic palace buildings – home to several legendary emperors who ruled China for centuries.

The Great Wall winds through the valleys, slopes and ridges of rugged mountains and vanishes in the blurred distance under cover of mist of freezing winter.  Thousands of friendly Chinese tourists climbed the steep stairs on the Great Wall up and down. They were obviously very excited and occasionally stopped to take family photos.

From a global empire to global economy

China transformed from being a global empire to global economy with a burgeoning and robust domestic tourism sector. The tourism sector also is one of the key drivers of growth because millions of foreign tourists pour into China every year. In 2012, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation reported that China ranked third in arrivals (58 million) and fourth in receipts (US$50 billion). In the same year, the travel and tourism sector created roughly about 62 million direct, indirect and induced jobs despite severe global economic recession. Thus the tourism sector became an important source of employment compared to financial and mining sectors in the economy.

Several decades of rapid economic growth imply that Chinese has become richer. This is reflected by the increase in gross national disposable income, poverty reduction, growing middle class and number of billionaires in China.

China has progressed beyond just being a major tourist destination to increasingly becoming an important player in the global tourism industry. In 2012, Chinese travellers spent a record US$102 billion on international tourism in the midst of the global economic recession. It is predicted that China will surpass the US and become a leading player in international tourism industry by 2023. This unique and dynamic transformation of the Chinese economy inspired me to reflect about how to grow the domestic tourism sector in Lesotho.

Specialisation in a competitive global tourism market

Most countries are successful because they have specialised tourism industries. Most popular categories of tourism are wildlife tourism; adventure tourism; cultural tourism; medical tourism; sports tourism; leisure tourism; business tourism; wellness tourism; Eco tourism; religious tourism etc. Although distinct factors may have contributed to the tremendous success of the tourism sector, clearly specialization and long-term planning underlined the key achievements of the tourism sector in China. Environmental protection and conservation of historical sites also explain why China is one of the leading tourist destinations in the world today.

South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Kenya are commonly known for wildlife tourism. India is popular for medical tourism. But success in a competitive global tourism market requires more than culture or availability of natural endowments. For example, effective leadership and institutions are important prerequisites for tourism expansion and growth.

Prioritising adventure tourism

There are varieties of options available to bolster the tourism sector and reverse the negative trend of tourism industry decline. However, the tourism market interventions must be supported by an integrated planning approach which facilitates effective policy coordination, without which the stagnation/even perpetual decline of the tourism sector will persist forever.

Lesotho, with its unique landscape, is a suitable destination for adventure tourism e.g. the Afri-Ski resort; Roof of Africa Rally; Menkhoaneng-To-Thaba Bosiu Annual Hiking expedition; mountain bikes cycling competition and abseiling, which attract tourists worldwide. Since tourism begins at home, Basotho should be encouraged to participate in these adventure tourism activities which could produce fine young sportsmen/sportswomen to compete at the Olympics and other major international sporting competitions. Promoting domestic tourism will also generate essential social capital thereby mitigating an occurrence of minor criminal offences against the foreign tourists.

The country needs more adventure tourism activities to attract more traffic of tourists to Lesotho. But it is the private sector and not the role of the government to create these activities. Rather the government should create a supportive environment to attract more private investments e.g. formulating suitable policies including engagement of local communities; expand the national electricity grid and build tarred roads to enable access to remote parts of the country where there is highest potential for adventure tourism. Some potential private investments include construction of hotel accommodations; hot-air balloons business; parachutes; skateboarding; figure skating with a goal to produce future Olympians – most millionaires made their fortunes from sporting activities etc.

Prioritising the adventure tourism must be an objective for the government and the private sector. Given the limited government budget resources it is clear there will be trade-offs so targeting is essential to avoid fragmentation. In addition, prioritisation refers to gradualism and careful sequencing of market policy interventions to channel private investments into targeted areas. The country cannot develop all its resource endowments at once. Well-articulated and coordinated government-private sector interventions will maximise the impact of reforms; promote rapid growth; create employment and prosperity of the tourism sector in Lesotho. Environmental protection and conservation of historical sites are indispensable for all types of tourism market interventions to succeed.

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Lesotho’s widely read newspaper, published every Thursday and distributed throughout the country and in some parts of South Africa.

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