How one UP researcher is improving access to information within the tourist industry to create jobs and make the sector more internationally competitive.
Traditionally, visitor information centres (VICs) exist at national parks, botanical gardens or cultural heritage sites so that these tourist attractions can educate visitors about the site.
But what if the VIC could do more than just educate? What if it could function as a source of information not just for visitors, but for the park, local communities and business in general as well?
Ms Kholadi Tlabela’s research at the University of Pretoria (UP) aims to determine how to make VIC’s more multifunctional. In her work as Director of Research at the National Department of Tourism (NDT), she realised long ago that providing access to information is a key driver of socio-economic development.
“During my Masters, it became clear that it is information itself, rather than the technology through which it is transmitted, that contributes to socio-economic development,” she explains. “This realisation made me to want to focus my PhD studies on access to information rather than on information and communication technology (ICT) services.”
Combining her work in tourism and this interest in the power of knowledge sharing, Tlabela embarked on a study of publicly managed VICs. She wanted to see how information exchange in VICs could make for more memorable experiences while at the same time empowering local communities.
“The study is very valuable to the NDT because it focusses on two important pillars of the of the revised NTSS: enhancement of memorable visitor experiences and community beneficiation,” she explains.
The research is at an early stage; Tlabela is currently collecting data in rural and urban settings around the country using face-to-face interviews with VIC staff, online surveys of visitors and local tourism businesses, and focus group discussions with local communities. Once completed, this data will hopefully provide the basis for a framework of knowledge exchange at VICs that will benefit all parties involved.
For Tlabela, tourism has always been about the people: “Tourism has now reached large numbers of people throughout the world, providing unforgettable, unique and memorable experiences,” she says. “I enjoy working in the field because I get to be a part of that.”
She envisions VICs that enhance visitors’ experiences at the attraction while providing local businesses with the knowledge they need to offer better services. In the long term, this will mean increased visitor bookings and returns, increased use of products/services, increased profitability for local businesses, and improved socio-economic status for surrounding communities.
In time, Tlabela’s PhD work will have a positive influence on both visitors and locals, as well as the competitiveness of South Africa’s tourism sector as a whole.