"We need to know we don't deserve tourists, we have to fight for them to come to our destination."
This was tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane's key message at the seventh edition of the national Lilizela Tourism Awards, which honours the best of the best of South Africa's guides, accommodation, experiences, venues and other tourism drivers in the country.
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Guests were greeted with a little local shopping at the Sustainability Village, where local artisans plied their wares to tourism stakeholders.
Inside the giant Sun Arena in Pretoria's Menlyn, a show of even more epic proportions combined fire, dance, stalwarts in the music industry and even the acclaimed Ndlovu Youth Choir into a performance that celebrated everything in South Africa's arsenal to, indeed, fight for those tourists.
"We are honouring the men and women working on the ground to deliver our South African promise," said deputy minister Fish Mahlela as he kicked off the awards.
But another poignant element in the proceedings was the focus on differently-abled superstars, which involved guest speaker Joseph Matheatau - the country's first blind barista - and more people from the community taking to the stage during the performances.
"Building an inclusive society has to be a conscious decision," said Kubayi-Ngunbane in her keynote address. There were also the Universal Accessibility Awards that focused on Accommodation and Experience Mobility, which was won by Soli Deo Gloria boutique hotel from Midrand and the Cape Town International Convention Centre.
Big winners for the accommodation categories included Palala Boutique Game Lodge for best 5-star Game Lodge, the Oyster Box Hotel for best 5-star Hotel, Jackalberry Ridge for best Caravan and Camping 3-star and River Place Manor for best 5-star Guesthouse.
Under venues, Birchwood and OR Tambo Conference Centre, Sandton Convention Centre, Naba Lodge Conference Facility and Sun Arena - where the awards itself was taking place - were some of the winners for their amazing event organising and facilities.
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Haywards Grand Safaris, Oceana Beach and Wildlife Reserve and Traditional African Homestays killed it in the Visitor Experiences category, while tourist guides were also honoured for their welcoming and informative skills as the face of our country to visitors.
The two big awards of the evening - the entrepreneurial ETAYA Award and I Do Tourism minister's award - went to Camping Retreats and Bheki Dube from Curiocity Backpackers for their contribution to growing the tourism industry by providing quality service and encouraging visitors to return to South Africa.
The I Do Tourism Awards has changed somewhat, with the minister actively selecting someone herself, and next year could be awarded to anyone that promotes and enhance the beauty of the country, which could even include a blogger focused on the travel sector.
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You can see the full list of Lilizela winners here.
The way forward for tourism
For the minister, there's a lot of hope for the sector. The Rugby World Cup win has the world talking about us again, but this time in a positive light as a nation determined to win through unity, and the department wants to translate that into the world saying "we want to visit that nation".
Kubayi-Ngubane has been on a tour of key markets to help recover the drop in international numbers reported earlier this year - more than 3% - which included visiting China and Japan, and later this month the minister will be travelling to Ghana and Nigeria, and hopefully to India in January.
The drop has been attributed to issues of safety and xenophobic violence, factors which the minister says the department has no control over, but are working on a way to respond to these incidents when they occur, generating conversations among South African about what impacts us and how it is perceived overseas.
This includes reminding South Africans how the tourism industry affects them and their loved ones, and the jobs dependent on that industry, which perhaps can be a catalyst for addressing these pervasive issues, according to the minister.
Some key feedback the minister has received is that travellers have become a lot more diverse across household income and generations, and they want South Africa to market more of their country beyond Table Mountain and Kruger National Park.
Other feedback, specifically from airlines, which the department will be working on is poor communication, specifically in terms of the scrapping of the unabridged birth certificate. While the Home Affairs minister confirmed it has been scrapped earlier in October, Kubayi-Ngubane says they only received it officially in writing on the day of the awards and will be embarking on an intensified campaign to spread the news, just in time for the festive season.
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