How can South Africa encourage more Wine Tourism? And why this is so important

Friday, 7 February, 2014
Dave Jefferson
Virtually all wine producing areas of the world who want to export significant quantities of wine in a sustained fashion need to encourage “wine tourism.”
First, returning “wine tourists” are almost invariably the best, most enthusiastic ambassadors for the wine region just visited. All their friends, neighbors, coworkers, extended family members, and future airplane seatmates are going to hear about their wonderful overseas adventures in the visited “Winelands.” They are never perceived as “sales reps,” with vested interests, but simply unbiased, newly minted and uncompensated“ Foreign Wine Experts,” who had a great time and now know more about certain wines than their friends, families, and other audiences. Certainly these RWM’s (Returned Wine Missionaries) are often scattered out over the world but they usually become permanent advocates for the wine areas they visited, and happy to do so.

Just as decades of fierce competition by international car companies has improved auto performance everywhere, the exported wines from all major regions has continued to improve in quality and often seen only modest (if any ) price escalations (other than a few French “trophy wines”). With more very good wine available every year for reasonable prices (if not taxed excessively), it is becoming increasingly more difficult for wineries from any country to truly distinguish themselves. So again, the RWM’s can play significant market development roles at the Grass Roots level. Many of them now publish personal or family Internet blogs, and therefore their enthusiastic stories can be picked up and read in many places, whether they are professional wine tasters/critics or not. (The growing impact of the Internet and Social Media is barely understood but undeniable today in the wine industry.)

An additional reason to encourage wine tourism is the wide economic impact on multiple sectors of wine producing countries and regions. From the time tourists get off the plane, cruise ship, or drive in locally, they are spending money on lodging, transportation, food, guides, and purchases of locally produced goods. The actual money spent on the immediate purchase of local wines pales in comparison; however, this may change somewhat as “cellar door” wine programs, where wine purchases are fulfilled in the tourists country of origin (rather than shipped back by the tourists, often an expensive, time consuming, and difficult undertaking), become more common and proliferate. Furthermore, the expansion of entry level jobs in the Winelands is important, not only for family support needs but also as stepping stones to higher level jobs as language skills, confidence in meeting the public, and wine and travel knowledge increases.

One of the truest business adages is: “When everything else is equal, you do business with your friends.” Since seemingly everything else is almost equal in the wine business, South Africa needs to engender more friends and wine tourism creates the best sort of friends: those that visit, spend money, purchase and share RSA wines as they extoll their trips once they have returned home.

The impact of the wine industry is being measured in the US and the results are both startling and very gratifying. Where I live, in Sonoma County, CA, professional, independent studies have shown remarkable growth in the last few years. In 2005, the Sonoma wine industry provided 27,584 jobs and $1 billion in wages; today that has risen to 54,297 full time equivalent jobs and $3.2 billion in wages. In 2005, 200 wineries generated $2.1 billion in sales; in 2012, some 550 wineries sold $3.05 billion. Over the same time period, wine related tourism rose from $263 million to $1.25 billion, an increase of 475%!

Similar local analysis for the Western Cape is needed, and certainly there is an amount of tourism that would be experienced from cruise liners and Vaalies (Gautengers) coming to see Table Mountain and the rest of the impressive local scenery, even if the Winelands did not exist. By the same token, other local industries (such as fishing, finance, and film making) are also not dependent upon wine per se. That granted, it may be that closer to 50% of the total economic impact of the Western Cape is wine/wine related, and a major part of that wine tourism. Whatever it is should be determined and publicly disclosed/promoted.

How to encourage wine tourism, however, and how to direct it to any given wine producing region is, as we say in the US, the $64 Question. A bit about the author’s wine experience in CA and the Cape may be relevant. I have spent the last 40 years in the CA wine grape growing business in Napa and Sonoma, the last 15 years as a part owner of White Oak, a Sonoma County winery, and the last 20 years traveling to and becoming involved in the South African wine business, again as a grower, part owner of a large wholesale winery, and an exporter of modest quantities of wine to the US. I have made 30 trips to the Cape over the years, and will make two more in 2014. So this is not my “first wine rodeo” in the local wine game.

Further, soon after we acquired our Breedekloof mountain vineyard project in 2000, many local winery owners repeatedly asked how they could successfully sell their wines overseas, especially in the US. So long before we were in a position to produce and to try to sell our own wares, we were grappling with the Big Picture and asking ourselves the same tough questions.Selling wine successfully (that recoups all costs) is difficult anywhere, and when the vineyards, tasting rooms, and the ambience of the local wine areas are thousands of miles away from the consumers, it challenges all companies but is almost overwhelming for smaller (often family owned) wine businesses.

Nevertheless, we came up with a mantra after a couple of years and continue to repeat it: everyone involved must first Sell South Africa, then Sell the Western Cape/Winelands, and finally Sell their own wine. If collectively the first two steps are not addressed, the third, the commercial undertaking, will usually fail. We have attempted to do our part by developing a “content rich” website (www.silkbush.com) to make it easier for those overseas to understand and become intrigued by South Africa. We wrote a section entitled So you are planning a trip to South Africa? (The PDF document now runs about 9 pages when printed) We created 10 photo galleries, averaging 85 photos per gallery, with text explaining each photo within the context of the Gallery as we tell the stories. We have also produced three videos that reside on our website along with some exceptional maps.

Our demonstrated theme is that the Cape is a beautiful region of the world, with wonderful people, great weather, a 350+ year wine history, and many fun things to do and see. “South Africa: California weather and scenery with lots more Black people and English as the unifying language.” You can drink the water, drive on good roads, and have a vacation of a life time. Few foreign wine consumers will actually become wine tourists, but they all need to understand and feel they could come and be welcome. They also need to understand their wine purchases help uplift the previous disadvantaged in many ways.

Many of these same “wine vacation” themes also can be applied to the other Southern Hemisphere wine regions of Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina. They also all have the tourism challenges of substantial travel distance, cost, multiple time zones and visitor jet lag. Certainly South Africa has the additional handicaps of a recent historyof violence and urban crime/unrest/labor problems. (Face it; this will turn off many from becoming wine tourists, no matter how attractive the country is.) However, Southern Africa also has a tremendous exciting asset: wild animals in game parks. The cable TV channels continue to feature the animal life and millions want to experience it first-hand. We always tell Americans if they want to really make it the Trip of a Lifetime, spend the first week in the game camps, and the second in the Western Cape. (And if you can afford to spend another three days in a European gateway city, both coming and going, it will be a relaxing excursion, not a modern day exhausting Voortrek.

At this point, most winefarm owners will think, “OK, I have heard it all before. But many of us now have attractive websites yet we are not experiencing much, if any, measurable impact.” This may be true but having this national understanding and “technology infrastructure” in place is collectively a PREREQUISTE to playing the international wine game. The RSA wine industry was not to this point even 10 years ago; it appears to be catching up but the international wine competitors are moving at least a fast. What else can be done?
Here are two suggestions: there must be a continuing international promotion of Visit South Africa and Visit the Western Cape/Winelands, with significant government tourism promotional involvement. It is never easy working with any government bodies anywhere but it must be accomplished. Simplistically, the National government agenda should be to encourage tourism to the country; the Western Cape Province agenda to promote Cape wine tourism. However, it is undeniable the biggest international draws to South Africa are the Western Cape/Winelands and the Kruger Park area game camps. Accordingly, these draws may need to be featured equally at the National level, with the assumption that visits to the Eastern Cape/Garden Route or to Kwazulu/Natal are for a second or third visit. As an overview, perhaps a www.VisitSouthAfrica.co.za website could be developed to be more a collector of expressed inquiries and then a director to more specific sites advising on topics such a game camps, guided tours vs. self-driving, lodging by regions, cultural/sporting events, and visiting the Winelands.The prospective wine tourists are everywhere in the world and will not be located with normal advertising. In good part real wine tourists are “self-selected” but sustained/institutional email campaigns and Social Media efforts may be able to reach and encourage many. For example, we understand China has the largest Internet base in the world at 513 million people and the largest social media user, with over 300 million people. (A further creative step may include government underwritten video series for television syndication (think Downton Abbey or The Good Wife) that could tell a compelling modern day stories about the Rainbow Nation.

Once a “wine tourist” has landed, a “Help Desk” accessed by a publicized central phone number of volunteering individual South African residents ready to accept emails and/or return calls should an issue arise during their visit… would be intriguing and potentially very helpful. (Most visitors may need little or nothing but a knowledgeable “local backup” may be faster and more helpful that trying to contact a travel agent or family member with a 7-10 time zone difference. While most travel agents in the US know next to nothing about South Africa, at least there are a few standouts, typically RSA nationals who have emigrated years ago.) Such a coordinated “grass roots” effort of South Africans could really set the country apart in the international hospitality area.At best, it might result in a major increase in tourism, especially Wine Tourism, and ultimately more sustained RSA wine sales abroad and substantial job growth locally. At a minimum, we need creative solutions tendered by many South Africans; everyone will benefit and everyone should be encouraged to help. 

In closing, a recent Wall Street Journal mention of the magnitude of projected Chinese tourism by the Chinese Ambassador to the US caught my eye. During the next five years, 400 million Chinese tourists will make overseas trips. Being able to secure even a sliver of 1% of that tourism travel would have a phenomenal impact on the South African economy and the Western Cape’s employment and sales. Let’s try to get our share!