Opinion: Should South Africa Tourism Sponsor an English Football League?

Tourism’s accountability to its residents post-pandemic is a new normal that tourism boards will have to embrace. The local pushback surrounding South Africa tourism’s proposed sponsorship of a Premier League football team is a perfect example of that.

South Africa’s tourism marketing body is in the midst of a major controversy after information was leaked and the Daily Maverick news website broke the story that South Africa Tourism is currently negotiating a sponsorship deal with English Premier League football club Tottenham Hotspur. The deal is for a purported 43.5 million British pounds or $1 billion rand ($60 million) over a period of three years. That’s between 35-40% of the tourism board’s budget, the tourism board confirmed at a press conference held to address the leaked information on this deal. Part of that investment would result in seeing South Africa on Tottenham’s shirt sleeves in the 2023-2024 season.

The tourism body is facing intense local backlash and criticism from residents who feel the deal comes at a time when there are larger issues at stake in the country, namely severe levels of load shedding (power outages) and increased crime, some of which have targeted western tourists and unsurprisingly made the front page of foreign press. The governmental tourism body’s response: tourism’s mandate isn’t to take care of potholes or electricity cuts; its mandate is to promote South Africa as a destination to visit and bring foreign visitors to the country. 

Funds going out of the country rather than what residents and private sector tourism leaders say could go into alternative methods of assisting its tourism industry locally, or towards attracting its growth markets such as China and India, has placed tourism at the center of the nation’s attention. Once again, it’s seen as an industry that makes decisions with a lack of transparency and ones that appear, on their surface, to be in complete disconnect with what’s happening on the ground. 

This disconnect of the global travel industry with the reality of local residents’ lives was exposed when the pandemic hit, as tourism boards around the world vowed to better integrate and collaborate with its tourism chain and with its host communities.

Now the industry in parts of the Global South appears comfortable returning to its bubble approach as travelers return and competition heats up. This “tourism isn’t responsible for quality of life” approach is the reason why citizens, including small businesses, push back on this industry. Residents can’t care when they’re not invited to participate in major decisions that affect their daily lives and which they essentially help fund through taxes. 

Even if the tourism board’s mandate isn’t to fix load shedding issues and potholes or tackle crime, a brand’s strength at home remains critical to its perception abroad, particularly in the world of social media where travelers make trip decisions. The industry’s numerous linkages also impact its ability to provide quality experiences, from safety to power.

A Lagging Tourism Recovery

On the flip side, South Africa’s tourism industry is indeed lagging, according to the tourism board. Tourism’s contribution to South Africa’s gross domestic product dropped from 6.4% in 2019 to 3.1% in 2020, then rose slightly to 3.2% in 2021, shared Robert Manson, South Africa Tourism’s acting chief strategy officer. “South Africa is really slipping behind from a global point of view,” he added, noting that while other countries are recovering in the 73% range compared to pre-pandemic levels, South Africa remains at 60% below 2019 numbers.

In 2022, South Africa received 5.7 million tourists, and 59.6 billion ini tourism spend, and its goal is 21 million arrivals by 2030. The tourism office is looking into this Premier League deal alongside other ways of marketing South Africa to audiences, acting CEO Themba Khumalo explained.

The need for aggressive marketing or the value of reaching a global audience of soccer fans aren’t in question. The benefits of sports tourism sponsorships and what those global views bring to the table for tourism marketers have been recognized. Nor is the amount invested unusual for South Africa tourism that “were happening anyway, you didn’t know about them” as acting CEO Themba Khumalo said.

A Broken Silo Approach

But the timing is what most rejecting the idea of this sponsorship on social media and beyond are pointing to—a time when there’s a national mood of discontent over heightened insecurity, a lack of electricity that affects small businesses, that make up the backbone of South Africa’s tourism industry, deepened inequalities, unemployment levels and an increased cost of living.

It’s a pushback that highlights that post-pandemic, tourism marketing offices will walk a fine line if they continue to operate in a silo, as residents will continue to be highly outspoken on the future of their destinations. Funding western companies while residents suffer at home is also about the importance of perception—and this one is giving a neocolonial tourism approach that’s come under fire since the post-pandemic waves of racial reckoning around the world.

What’s clear is that the time for the tourism industry to operate in a silo is long over. Transparency, collaboration across the sector and a community-centric, holistic approach are indeed travel’s mandate in the new normal. Maybe once that happens, using public funds to lure deep-pocketed international viewers to a destination through a lucrative sponsorship will come with less friction?


Lebawit is an award-winning, independent travel journalist, author and speaker specializing in global tourism. Her reported stories on sustainability, equity, destination management, hospitality, responsible marketing, and climate action have appeared in consumer and trade publications, including Bloomberg, Skift, and Conde Nast Traveler. Read more about Lily here.

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