By Sabine Lehmann

The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) in the UK released its annual visitor report on Wednesday 27 March 2019.

At first glance, it may appear that this report is not relevant to us in South Africa. After all ALVA’s visitor numbers are envy inducing sky-high (Tate Modern had the largest number of visitors with more than 5.8 million visitors) but what can the African Association of Visitor Experiences and Attractions (AAVEA) learn from ALVA?

Several things, actually. Here are our key learnings:

1. Visitor experiences and attractions encompass more than the traditional tourist sites:

ALVA’s members include heritage and art museums, concert halls (Royal Albert Hall), cathedrals, zoos and aquariums, natural sites (Giants’ Causeway), and botanical gardens and science museums. It is time that African attractions gather under one roof to learn from each other. Locally I often hear the comment that “we are not an attraction” as if being an attraction has a negative connotation. Visitors see all these excursions as a day out and do not box them into neat tick boxes. Whist different attractions do have their own specific focus areas; there is also much that we can learn from each other.

2. Cultural sites are the most popular visitor attractions:

Eight of the top 10 most visited sites in the UK were museums. Museums of art are particularly popular with The Tate Modern as the most visited attraction in the UK, the National Gallery coming in at third place, V&A Museum at sixth place and the National Portrait Gallery 19th.

This is good news for new art museums in South Africa – The Norval Foundation, Zeitz MOCAA and soon The Javett as well as the many smaller museums we have in the country.

3. Sharing information is important:

Over 249 sites shared their data. These included mega-sites such as The Tate Modern with 5.8 million visitors to smaller attractions such as Weoley Castle with just over 8000 visitors.

South Africa does not have a database of all our attractions and thus gathers no comprehensive data on the number of visitors nor jobs created. In fact, local sites are usually very reluctant to share statistics.

How can we lobby for our needs if we don’t indicate the size and impact of our attractions industry? Whilst not all attractions may want to link their name and visitor numbers, most won’t even share information anonymously. The industry cannot move forward without data.

4. Weather affects all visitor attractions:

A very hot British summer in 2018 meant that some sites gained visitors (indoor – air conditioned attractions) and some sites lost visitors (it was too hot to be outside).

5. Visitor numbers are seasonal:

The Irish Association of Visitor Experiences and Attractions (AVEA) also does an annual benchmarking exercise (anonymous) and highlights that seasonality is an issue for attractions.

67% of admissions occur during the summer months outside of Dublin and 43% of admissions occur during the summer months in the Irish capital city of Dublin. This highlights the need for attractions to manage seasonality and is a driving force for why AAVEA is lobbying to have South African school holidays staggered between inland and coastal schools.

Take the time to register your comment on the proposed school holiday calendar for 2021 here.

6. Visitor numbers are only one metric for measuring:

High visitor numbers always lead the press releases but don’t let this skew your view. Just 14% of sites received more than 1 million visitors annually. Almost 40% received less than 100 000 visitors annually.

In Ireland, 20% of attractions attract 50 000 or fewer visitors per annum. Large and small attractions are all part of the visitor landscape and have an important role to play in the tourism industry. Visitor numbers are clearly not the only metric or the most important metric of success.

Ultimately, each site needs to be measured on whether they are fulfilling their mandate and vision. What is fulfilling a mandate, though, if no one walks through the door? Tracking admissions is an important start.

7. Attractions rely on domestic visitors for success:

The domestic market is the largest single source of visitors in Ireland (25%) and so too for South African attractions. 65% of visitors to SANParks are South African and 50% of people who use the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway are from South Africa. Domestic tourism is an essential and integral part of all visitor attractions in South Africa.

8. Experiences and attractions drive the tourism economy and create jobs:

Visitor experiences and attractions play a crucial role in the tourism economy. Indeed, they are the essential component in the tourism economy.

Attractions can and do provide the incentive to leave home and experience something new and different from the daily norm. Attractions are important job creators providing a wide range of jobs.

Well-run and well-placed attractions can draw visitors away from traditional tourist routes and act as a conduit for creating new nodes of interest for international and domestic tourists.

They are an important link in the leisure economy ensuring citizens have safe and healthy leisure options to participate in.

9. Attractions in South Africa can hold their own:

Whilst South Africa has no central database of attractions and hence has no useful benchmark (something that AAVEA will be aiming to change) we do have a number of attractions that reach high visitor numbers keeping pace with UK and Irish attractions on far fewer international tourist numbers.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens receives one million visitors, which is a massive achievement when you put this next to Kew Gardens in London.

Read the ALVA Visitor Numbers 2018 report here and let us know which key learnings you have taken from it by tweeting them to us at @Attractions_Afr on Twitter.