By Jabu Matsebula
The tourism and leisure sectors are people and entities who suffered the full brunt of the scalding trauma of the series of shocks that washed over the Kingdom in the past three years.
With nothing more than the will to survive, they clawed their way back on hands and knees; finally returning their feet to be the example of resilience worthy of consideration in His Majesty King Mswati III’s next Honours List.
A mourning atmosphere hung like a gloomy veil over a normally abuzz Mountain Inn dining room. Gone were the muted guttural tones of hungry Germanic males mixed with flutey accents of the chirpy French and other tongues of the tribes of Europe. Together with the Dutch and the United Kingdom, Germany and France are historically the four leading nationalities that visit Eswatini and are regularly represented at this famous Mbabane breakfast venue.
Siboniso, the lonely waiter who had lost even more weight, his job hanging by the threads of his white waiter’s shirt was visibly sick with worry. “The last tourist bus was three days ago. I am the only one still serving today. The others have gone home.” The direction of the home indicated a homeward journey that headed to ancestral places.
This was April 2020, and this experience was being repeated in the 178 tourist venues touched by the cold diseased finger of Covid-19.
Around the world, countries were boarding doors and windows, barring entry to all except kith and kin; preventing departures and abandoning Covid-19 tainted cruise ships at sea.
Marc Ward Jnr; a familiar morning presence for whom the hotel had been home and livelihood all of his life could do little, but keep a stiff upper lip: “Our entire bookings have been wiped out. We have absolutely nothing. Booking agents have nothing for us until September.” The promised ‘September’ was six months in the future.
As it turned out, even that projection was way overoptimistic. The tourist buses only reappeared almost two years later. By that time, key historic landmarks such as the Royal Swazi Sun had folded, cutting off thousands of people into the cold winter of unemployment. Further up the road, construction of the International Convention Centre and FISH (Five Star Hotel) wobbled in uncertainty and then stopped. It has since restarted somewhat.
Contagion swept into Eswatini to find a country already on its knees. Mostly self-inflicted harm, some of it traceable to governance, including the effect of almost 20 years – the longest term of government under a single Prime Minister. By 2018 when that term ended, everything that could break had faithfully done so. In addition, the country had developed a crippling national dependency syndrome fed by a reliance on a government that bloated beyond sustainable levels to suck away all available resources.
At the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, owners of the now reincarnated Eswatini Air, media reports showed broken doors to vital offices. The ministry was said to have become too poor to even afford a cheap E100 lock. Regular reports also spread the alarm of possible failure to pay public service salaries – a fate common among failed governments.
Huge budget deficits forced the government to rely on loans; the genesis of now historic debt. It was an unsustainable scenario that compelled His Majesty to summon the Swazi National Council, the all-inclusive 2018 citizens Parliament in the national cattle-byre where keynote speakers underlined the urgency of inspiring a national economic turnaround that would prioritize productivity and economic growth while curtailing rampant runaway consumption.
That advice subsequently consolidated in a series of priorities highlighted fiscal consolidation and balanced budgets that reduced reliance on deficits while reframing responsibility for economic growth by scaling down the role of the government in direct economic activity and frontloading leadership of the private sector as the engine of growth. Two additional priorities included new investment in infrastructure and the less easy-to-attain aspiration to transformative management with a culture of excellence.
A commitment to opening breathing room for the private sector was a great relief in an economy where the government reproducing itself crowded out the production of goods. The shift in government thinking is increasingly visible – but far from everywhere.
The tourism sector is one of the lowest-hanging fruit in economic reinvigoration. It costs little to inspire quick wins that leverage existing infrastructure with limited new investment.
One swallow does not make a summer. Three years after the tourists took fright, a lot more cheerful Siboniso is still at his post, pouring the regular bottomless cup the facility is known for: “Consider me the last man standing,” he quipped.
Adopting a culture of excellence necessary for an effective economic turnaround can benefit from important lessons in the private sector. Every country’s biggest strength is its people. They are valuable under efficient leadership, physical supervision and visual presence for consistent productivity and quality performance.
The tourist buses have not yet returned to their normal flow. Bar some cosmetic changes including a new name, new décor and seating rearrangements, the Mountain Inn now stands as the Mountain View.
Mohammed Nabala who has transplanted Marc Jnr is cheerfully confident “we are getting there”. Every morning, he is on the floor, eyes on the ball, noting details and quietly keeping things moving by what he calls “management by walking”.
Evidence of transformation towards the culture of excellence is also noted in the leadership actions in some key government institutions as reflected in agility in opportunism and response time.
At the Eswatini Tourism Authority (ETA) they maintain an unblinking vigilance for opportunities, crunching the numbers in a constant search to translate trends into opportunities. They were quick on the ball at the relaunch of the national airline, Eswatini Air (EA). An exhilarated ETA chief executive officer Linda Nxumalo [pictured left] is elated at what she sees as new opportunities for lifting the bounce of a vital sector of the economy back and beyond its historic highs.
The numbers show that in the best Eswatini tourism year of 2017, of the 1.2 million visitors, 850,221 came from South Africa; 213,920 from Mozambique and 46,179 from Zimbabwe. The airline’s routes echo this profile. Flights to Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban and Zimbabwe aim at bringing more of those visitors to the Kingdom.
Stimulating travel and tourism from the airline’s destinations requires an ETA partnership with the airline owners, Royal Eswatini Airways Corporation (RENAC). The airline will now piggyback on ETA-organized marketing platforms including trade shows and communications.
“Whilst the country is yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, indicators are that 2023 will drive growth much closer to the stellar performances noted before the advent of covid-19. For instance, the first two months of 2023 reflect a growth of close to 75% of the same period of 2019”, says Nxumalo.
ETA research shows the single-most-important influence of Eswatini as a choice destination is word of mouth; reflecting the role everyone, here and abroad has in the destination both travel and positive ambience. For that, everyone on the ground is required on board. After the launch of the KM3 International Airport, the airport managers arranged a regular shuttle that religiously conveyed passengers to and from the airport. Yet, last week when the national airline started operating with the promise of even more passengers, the shuttle had long disappeared.
Why? “Ground transport is not part of our mandate”, an ESWACAA spokesperson for the airport operators explained.