Last updated: 02:00 PM ET, Mon May 11 2015

TravelPulse One on One: Thulani Nzima, CEO of South African Tourism

Destination & Tourism | David Cogswell | May 11, 2015

TravelPulse One on One: Thulani Nzima, CEO of South African Tourism

Thulani Nzima started his career in banking in 1984 then veered into the travel industry where he has been ever since. In 1991 he took a position with South African Airways. During his 14-year tenure there, he traveled extensively developing programs in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. He became CEO of South African Travel Centre (SATC) in 2005. In 2007 he joined Avis Rent-A-Car Africa as director of sales and marketing for the continent. He consolidated all that experience into his new role when he became CEO of SAT in January 2012.

He was responsible for spearheading the transition of Indaba from a Southern Africa-centric travel trade show to a pan-African show, functioning as a headquarters for doing business in the travel industry for the entire continent of Africa.

TravelPulse interviewed Nzima at Indaba, the African travel trade show that was held at the International Convention Centre (ICC) Durban, South Africa.

TravelPulse: What made you decide to open up Indaba to all of Africa?

Thulani Nzima: The reality was formed by a change among the buyers. The buyers said we want more continental products. That is the first thing that is in their minds before they even start thinking of a specific country in Africa.

The second reason was that the exhibitors had been looking for an avenue where they could meet with global buyers from around the world in one stop. So Indaba became that one-stop shop.

Also the reality of the situation was that if we did not open up Indaba to what it is, the rest of Africa was beginning to knock at our doors and saying, “Guys, we don’t want to go and start a competing event somewhere when we could be part of Indaba.”

At first Indaba was a local trade show, then 25 years ago it moved into focusing on Southern African products. And now we added all of Africa. That’s the evolution of Indaba. We believe that where we are now we have positioned Indaba correctly so it meets the needs of the buyers and those of the exhibitors at the same time.

TP: How are you dealing with the public relations problem caused by recent attacks were described in the media, incorrectly I think, as “xenophobic” attacks?

TN: They were sporadic incidents that flared up within the space of a week. It has all died down now because South Africa as a nation stood up and said firmly, “This is not us, and we cannot be described as such.”

Our biggest currency is our people, and that’s how we have been positioning the country. And when someone fiddles with that currency it’s debiting our bank account seriously. There are two things we’ve looked at: what are we going to do in the short term and what are we going to do in the long term.

In the short term it was important to give assurance first to the people who were directly involved in this, our African brothers and sisters, that it is safe, it is okay for them to come to South Africa and to come to Indaba.

So we did so by first condemning xenophobia and joining hands with the African community in doing so. Then of course the President also condemned those acts of violence. Here in Kwa-Zulu Natal His Majesty the King of the Zulus also called these people together and told them to stop that nonsense, whatever it was they were doing. So it’s over.

People are here at Indaba enjoying themselves. Mozambique felt they couldn’t come here and cited xenophobia as the reason for not coming. But their officials are here. Their products are here. So it’s interesting that if you go out on the exhibition floor you are going to find them there.

And their officials are telling me an interesting story. Although we were informed by their consul general that they were told to be careful of coming to South Africa, the reality is they regret not being here. For the first time in 20 years they are missing Indaba. Their products are here and some of the officials came too, but they are not pitching a Mozambique tent.

The other country that pulled out is the DRC Congo. So out of all the African countries, two have pulled out. Mozambique indicated that they pulled out, but technically they are here. All in all, we have 20 African countries that are here including the ministers of the countries. They need to be here.

In the long-term perspective we are looking at a different message, at how to liberate ourselves, how to reposition the country in the face of attacks on foreign nationals. Because of the people who attended Indaba there seems to be a huge shift in the mindset of the media here. Indaba has come and gone smoothly, so what next? What will be the interesting thing to talk about after the story of the attacks on foreign nationals?

We will be using our platforms to communicate to South Africans, first to help them understand that we are intrinsically part of Africa ourselves, and secondly, that the freedoms we enjoy today are to a large extent due to the sacrifices that our African brothers and sisters have made. And then we have to do things that will demonstrate that.

We want the people in their homes and businesses here to tell their stories, so South Africans will loudly say, “Yes indeed! We see you as a part of us,” to make sure we do not embarrass ourselves as a country the way we did in the last few weeks.

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