The national Department of Tourism has embarked on a welcome Tourism Service Excellence drive, and has released a draft document for comment from the industry until the end of February in developing a tourism service excellence standard and code, to enhance the tourist experience in South Africa.

The development of a ‘National Standard’ for Tourism Service Excellence by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) results from a 2008 National Tourism Skills Audit Report recommendation that customer care training in the tourism sector should be improved, when South Africa ranked 61st of 133 countries in The World Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report of 2009, coupled with inconsistent service delivery in tourism, ranging from very poor to very good.  The reason for this was stated as being the lack of ‘integrated standards and norms that can be used as a guiding tool in terms of customer service’. To improve customer service, it was deemed necessary to develop a set of policies, guidelines and programmes, to ‘ensure a holistic approach and collective ownership’ for customer service, thereby improving service excellence throughout the tourism ‘value chain’.  Such a standard would be developed for all businesses which come into contact with tourists, including the Immigration officials (criticised in the past for their unfriendliness), transport services, accommodation establishments, financial institutions, shops, and any other businesses and authorities which deal with tourists when they make bookings for their trip, when they arrive, and interact with them during their stay.

‘South Africa should be seen as the country that offers the best service, diverse experience and value for money.  The overall purpose of this document is to emphasize the importance of the spirit of “Ubuntu” in ultimately achieving the vision of tourism growth and development in South Africa’, states the draft Service Standard document.

According to the Service Standard draft, tourism businesses would be required to support the principles of accessibility, accountability, accuracy, capacity building, commitment, consistency, continual improvement, courtesy, responsiveness, safety and security, value for money, and visible marketing in displaying the logo for the new Service Standard, in running their tourism businesses and operations.  It is not only written for South Africa, but incorporates neighbouring countries such as Botswana, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, as if they are service extensions of our country’s tourism product.

The Service Standard document identifies government departments, as well as associations and groupings of tourism businesses which should adopt the service standard, and encourages its usage amongst its staff and members, including the Department of Home Affairs serving tourists on arrival and departure at airports; SA Tourism and the International Marketing Council in marketing the country; provincial tourism authorities; municipalities in providing visitor information services, signage, and infrastructure; telecommunication companies providing cellphone services; SARS for customs clearance; airports; the Banking Association; the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa, the industry quality assessment body, not mentioning FEDHASA, the industry hotel association, and the guest house association; the Banking Association; the Restaurant Association of South Africa (although not all restaurants belong to it); the Tourism Business Council of South Africa; and shopping centres.

Tourism businesses are expected to introduce a quality policy, to make service their focal point, to train new staff in service, to offer friendly and professional service, and to review their quality and services regularly.  In running their tourism businesses, they are encouraged to focus on the following:

*   Product: it should offer quality, choices and alternatives, ensure that there is enough staff to assist the tourists (this is the biggest challenge to the tourism industry, and would require a complete work ethic culture change amongst staff), offer value for money (a very relative term), universal accessibility for the disabled, ensure the safety and security of their clients, ensure guest information confidentiality, be environmentally friendly in its operation, and not discriminate against any types of clients.

*   Service: should be friendly, professional, guest focused and driven, and offer an effective service recovery.

*   Marketing: should have a consistent message, be accurate, be updated regularly to create realistic expectations for tourists, be truthful and honest, and not be offensive.

Although written in an academic form, the draft National Service Excellence standard is an excellent step forward for tourism service excellence.  One is surprised that it has taken the Department of Tourism so long to work on the standard, and that it was not prepared in time for the 2010 World Cup.  Most (commercial) tourism businesses would argue that they already apply the principles of service excellence in running their businesses, our country receiving praise for its friendliness and for walking the extra mile, and that it should be the government departments and bigger corporates who have a secondary tourism involvement that should be adopting the new service standard.  The document contains a Tourism Service Excellence code for companies to use as a framework to design their own service excellence codes.  As with most such documents, it has not been widely exposed to the tourism industry in terms of the input and feedback the SABS is seeking.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage