Thembi Kunene, chief quality assurance officer at the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa. Picture: THE HERALD
Thembi Kunene, chief quality assurance officer at the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa. Picture: THE HERALD

SCATHING customer reviews on websites such as TripAdvisor are forcing hotels and bed-and-breakfasts to keep improving, and this is one of the factors behind South Africa’s stellar tourism growth, research shows.

PwC leader of hospitality and gaming Nikki Forster said travel websites such as TripAdvisor and (an acronym for "where are you now") were forcing increasing numbers of the hospitality providers to monitor what was being said online.

The Tourism Grading Council of South Africa, which grades local accommodation, agrees. Chief quality assurance officer Thembi Kunene said some local hotel managers were using TripAdvisor feedback "as part of their performance measurements".

This means guests are beginning to gain control over how establishments are seen and marketed, and are putting pressure on them to provide services such as wireless internet, which is now standard in other developed tourism markets.

Ms Forster said even smaller players such as guesthouses and self-catering units were feeling indirect pressure to offer these services in "an ever-changing market".

However, she said, some local operators had not yet grasped this shift — to their detriment.

Ms Kunene said the generally improving quality of South Africa’s hospitality sector was also being driven by the stringent standards set by the Tourism Grading Council. She agreed with Ms Forster on the role of direct customer feedback in improving accommodation standards.

Ms Kunene said South Africa’s rising tourist arrival numbers could be partly attributed to the improving quality of the hospitality sector, which was enhancing the value-for-money appeal of the country.

About 9.2-million tourists arrived in South Africa last year, representing annual growth of 10.2% — well above the global average of 4%.

Earlier this year, the Protea Hospitality Group announced that it was investing R15m in a new website to boost direct customer feedback. Group online distribution head Clinton Arnot said: "We’re in a consumer-driven environment and we have to adapt to engage with them in the way they want."

Ms Kunene said Wi-Fi and other services customers are demanding "is the reason why we reviewed the grading criteria back in 2010, to make it more relevant".

"It’s a customer-driven demand and it is foolish for operators not to consider things that the customer demands," she said.

Ms Kunene was speaking ahead of the first annual Lilizela Tourism Awards, which will consolidate a number of travel and tourism awards into a single event for the first time.

Five award categories will be presented this year, which will recognise service excellence, the emerging tourism entrepreneur of the year, sustainability, universal accessibility and the minister’s award. From next year, the Lilizela awards will include 18 different categories.