Thekiso Rakolojane's assignment as the new Hub Head for South African Tourism in West Africa kicked-off January this year, as he resumed at the regional head office in Lagos to lead a team whose mandate is to sell South Africa's tourism offerings to Nigeria, Ghana and other countries in the sub-region.
"I love it," was his quick reply to his impressions so far as he fielded questions from THISDAY. He was at his office, which comes with an eighth-floor view of upscale Victoria Island.
"Lagos is second home to me. When you come from where I come from - Johannesburg and Soweto - you feel the energy. The energy is quite similar.
"I'm happy to be here. I'm loving the food, battling with the traffic but it's all good. I love the diversity that Lagos provides in terms of the various places where one can go. You could pretty much do a new establishment every night, which is a good thing; sometimes high intensity, sometimes low key and private. I like that."
Rakolojane has over 17 years experience in the fields of marketing and communications and has spent the better part of the last decade as Marketing and Communications Manager of the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa (TGCSA), a business unit of South African Tourism.
However, from being the man behind the scenes, he has been thrust into the field. He is wasting no time in getting to grips with the task at hand. "I've had a lot of engagements and we're receiving very positive feedback," he revealed.
There are still improvements to be made but he is taking it in stride. "Things can never be perfect. I'll be worried if it was perfect because they wouldn't need me here," he laughed. You can tell he's a straight shooter.
As his country's chief marketer in the sub-region, he is keen to attract as many West Africans as possible to South Africa. "There is so much that they can do there. We've got nine provinces that provide a diversity of experiences.
"For every visit to South Africa, you would do something new. You meet different people, there are different things that will entice you.
"We've got everything for individuals, friends, couples, families. You just need to choose what kind of experience you're looking for. We have it."
He has a strategic plan to sell his country. "What is really important is to position our destination as a premium leisure destination to West Africans and if we can get more of them coming to South Africa, then I can say I have done my job."
Rakolojane's journey has prepared him for exactly this type of project. He first got acquainted with West Africa seven years ago. "I was introduced to this market representing South African Tourism, albeit in a different department.
"I was talking to our trade partners in the market, doing road shows and attending expos where I was presenting the quality of establishments we have in South Africa.
"We have about 26,000 tourism products in South Africa. So it's very important that of those 26,000, you profile those that will give your guests good quality experience. My job was to make sure that I share that information with them," he explained.
From then, a relationship with Nigeria - and West Africa - started, as he made frequent visits to support the market from a branding marketing perspective.
"The work you have seen in the last few years was this particular office (Lagos) working with myself and the branding marketing department from head office, where we were supporting with how we position ourselves; the type of images that we use and the content in its entirety, because I was the brand manager for the continent.
"Now I've been given the task of coming into the market and driving the entire business. So I'm really not new to the market, I've had quite a bit of exposure. I know what is required of the market."
Friendlier Visa Policy
The transition from pushing out images and content from behind the scenes to driving the whole business in West Africa means he can witness first-hand, a major impediment to free travel between Nigeria and South Africa: a discouragingly tough visa policy.
He knows he has his hands full. He shares some of the inroads the SA Tourism office in Lagos is making in order to ease the process.
"The body that is responsible for the issuance of visas is a very strategic partner to us. What we've strategically set out to do is to have ongoing engagements with them to see how to assist them with information that will help them fast track the issuance of visas. Matter of fact, I am meeting with them tomorrow (the next day).
"The whole idea is to set out ongoing platforms where we can share with them the experiences of our travel partners and the challenges they face and see how that information enables them to review how the whole visa process works, so we can promptly issue out visas."
Beyond the High Commission in Lagos, there are moves being made back home in South Africa.
"The issue of visas is being taken on a presidential level. Our President has provided assurances to the tourism industry in South Africa who obviously, are impacted. If we don't have visas issued here in the market, people don't travel to South Africa and therefore, hotels are not being occupied, and travel agents are not generating income. So it does have an impact on South African businesses as well.
"So he (President Cyril Ramaphosa) has given assurance to the business sector in South Africa that the issue of visas is getting high priority and matter of fact, the big countries that have been affected are Nigeria, India and China.
"All three countries are receiving special attention at the presidential level, with a view of coming up with ways and means of how these issues will be addressed. It is receiving the attention that it deserves."
Increasing Nigerian Tourists
In spite of difficulties in getting visas, Nigerians still visit South Africa in the tens of thousands. Rakolojane's job is to increase this number further.
"I can tell you what we're looking at. Our annual target is 60,000. For 2018, as at end of October, we were sitting on 55,000, which is quite a considerable performance.
"Matter of fact, we've started seeing the increase in arrivals to South Africa from Nigeria from August last year, which is quite a positive thing for us. We however would like to increase that on an annual basis," he said.
His Immediate target is to surpass last year's numbers. "As you can imagine, my challenge is to increase the numbers for 2019. And I think that in itself should assure our partners and the travelling public of our desire to get them to travel to South Africa.
"So if we say we're getting involved in the barriers that are hindering travel to South Africa, we really do have a vested interest in this. We'll do our best to make sure that as many as possible get their visas, buy the packages and travel to their destination."
While recent data point to a potential upsurge in numbers, they still fall short of the record achieved earlier this decade.
"There was a huge increase in travel to South Africa from Nigeria starting in 2010. And I think the decline that we experienced in the past few years was a result of quite a number of variables. The ease of travel became one of them. Other destinations obviously came into play.
"However, we are clawing back. That's why we have started to see the increase in our numbers and certainly in the next five years, the strategic plan is to not only increase from the past year, but go back to the numbers of 2013 and 2014 when we had about 80.000.
"The only way we go back is through a comprehensive effort, which comes through our partners including the media, which is a very strategic partner to us, by sharing the positive stories of our destination, working with our travel trade partners who put out the deals, affordable deals I should add, and most importantly, making sure that the deals themselves are what people are looking for in South Africa.
"Some of the things we're looking to put out is to show the diversity that South Africa has to offer to Nigerians. There is so much more that you can do."
While there have been no recent cases, there was a time a few years ago, when isolated incidents of xenophobic attacks cast a pall on South Africa's image as a welcoming destination.
Rakolojane is quick to allay any fears though. "Safety and security are very important to us. In terms of frequency, the issue of xenophobia has come down quite considerably in the recent past. However, our desire is to have it at zero because first and foremost, Nigeria and South Africa have a long history of brotherhood from during the days our fathers were involved in the struggle."
Safety and security is taken seriously at the policy level in South Africa. "The South African tourism industry has in the past few years, implemented what we call a tourism safety initiative which is a concerted effort between government and the private sector in making sure that tourists that come to South Africa are protected.
"There are various measures right from the airport to the hotels so there's no opportunity of people pilfering your bags or you getting physically harmed. What we also like to encourage people to do is to visit South Africa. Any negative experiences that they may have had in the past are certainly a thing of the past because we've learned from those mistakes that have happened and also, those incidences were a reflection of a very small portion of the community."
In fact, rather than less Nigerians, South Africa wants more, he said. "The bigger community is very welcoming of Nigerians and if anything, we want to see more Nigerians come in. We share the same passion for music, the same passion for lifestyle.
"Music is a big thing. I think between Nigeria and South Africa, there's a much bigger platform where there's an exchange of musical cultures. So you have Wizkid regularly in South Africa, and Cassper Nyovest, AKA and Mafizikolo coming into the market in Lagos.
"It tells you people are conducive to South African music here, and I can tell you, Nigerian music is big in South Africa. I'm a big fan of Wizkid, Davido, Mr Eazi, Patoranking and Burna Boy who was in the country for a while and did a lot of collaborations. I love his music. In fact, my colleague, Mohammed, has just done a compilation for me of strictly Nigerian music."
He recalled fond memories of the Global Citizen concert held in Johannesburg in December as part of activities to commemorate Nelson Mandela's 100th birthday posthumously.
"It was quite exciting for us to have Tiwa Savage, Wizkid, Dbanj, Femi Kuti and others performing. That was really, really exciting. Just shows you the appetite we have in South Africa for not only the music but the culture as well.
"If you go to some of the hotels in South Africa, the Da Vinci for example, we have a restaurant there that sells strictly Nigerian food. For me that shows how big the Nigerian culture is in South Africa."