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GGood day to everyone, and all the graduates today. Please allow me to offer my heartiest congratulations on your graduation today.

It’s an outstanding achievement, and we at South African Tourism are extremely proud of you as you enter the challenging but exciting hospitality industry.  In you, we have found even more tourism ambassadors for our country.

As I’m sure your lecturers have made you aware, hospitality is not always glamorous and it’s certainly no picnic. You will work hard and sometimes, long hours. You will often be the unsung heroes behind the scenes while others get the praise and recognition.

But it is an incredibly rewarding profession. This is because you are making an important contribution to reflecting and shaping South Africa’s dynamic culinary landscape and keeping our cuisine up there with the best in the world.

Without our chefs’ creativity and dedication in putting their passion on a plate, South Africa would be a much poorer place. Your profession is a crucially important one in our economy.

As cooks, chefs, restaurateurs and caterers, you enrich both our economy and our vibrant South African culture. You and your gastronomic creations are, in fact, a shop window to our country. Why? Because South Africa is known around the world for its amazing food. In fact, culinary tourism is on the rise around the world.

Just look at the many foodie shows on our television screens. Food is big business, and an endless source of fascination and even obsession to the army of global foodies out there. The local and international tourists who travel in and around South Africa, whether for business or leisure, will all indulge in some form of culinary tourism, whether it’s dining at their hotels, at top-end restaurants or at the local Spur.

When we market South Africa as a tourism destination,   we mention our food as part of the incredible offerings that tourist will experience when they come to visit South Africa.

Trying out the local cuisine is regarded as a vital component of the tourism experience. In fact, food is believed to rank quite high on the list of importance to travellers. And in South Africa, we are well known for the superb quality of our food and the excellent value it is for money – especially for those bringing their pounds, euros or dollars to spend here.

Some might opt for the conventional good old tried and trusted food – burgers, steaks, or pizza and pasta. But even there, you as chefs could have some fun by creating unusual gourmet burgers or whipping up a Mediterranean dish with a South African twist.

Then there are those adventurous tourists who are eager to sample the traditional delicacies or signature dishes – we’re talking Mopani worms, samp and beans, bobotie and bunny chows. Many will of course savour our famous South African wines, some will seek out craft beers from the rising number of micro-breweries. Others might be brave enough to try umqombothi or even peach mampoer!

What I’m saying here is that the unique tastes and flavours of our food mirror the diversity of our people – not to mention the diversity of our tourism offerings and attractions. Food is part of our culture. And it’s an important symbol of the wider platter of authentic, home-grown South African experiences to be had. So yes, this is one of the ways in which we can differentiate ourselves from other countries: our incredible food.

So this is why you, each and every one of you, are all uniquely positioned to be tourism ambassadors for South Africa. Your creations can enchant, inspire, delight and make for memorable gastro-tourism experiences. In fact, if you think about it, YOU ARE TOURISM.

I say this because I am giving you a sneak peek into South Africa’s soon-to-be-launched campaign, titled I Am Tourism. This new marketing drive aims to be make tourism relevant to each and every South African. It means that all of you – all of us – have a role to play in the tourism value chain. This includes your parents, friends, colleagues, grandparents. In fact everyone, regardless of who they are and where they work.

Tourism touches on every other sector in South Africa. Yes, it obviously involves you because you are entering the hospitality industry and will be directly involved in serving tourists. But have you ever stopped to think that whatever we do is part of a chain reaction, almost a domino or ripple effect?

Let me give you an example. I am a tourist who enters South Africa at OR Tambo airport. In the very first day alone I meet immigration officials, SARS officials and airport staff and security officers. I go to buy foreign exchange. I buy a newspaper from the newsagent and a snack and cold drink from the kiosk. I then ask for assistance on how to buy a Gautrain card and where to board the correct train.

Then I exit at the station and ask a passer-by for directions to my hotel. I enter the hotel and deal with the receptionist, then hail a porter to help with my luggage. I go to the supermarket to buy some necessities, and I greet a shelf packer and chat to the cashier. Later I head out to a restaurant to order food and wine, and interact with the car guard, the manager and the waiters. I hail an Uber cab to get back to the hotel.

Boom – in the space of just a few hours, I’ve had multiple interactions with the formal and informal economy, cutting across sectors from agriculture, banking and retail to infrastructure, transport to hospitality.

This is an example of how tourism touches and affects us all – and show that we all have a role to play in creating a tourist-friendly country.

Why am I so passionate about tourism? Well, first of all I am the CEO of South African Tourism, so it’s my job. But even if it wasn’t my job I would want to play my part as a cog in the wider tourism ecosystem, because the economic benefits of tourism are plain to see. In fact, you could call tourism “the new gold”.

We know that South Africa’s mining sector is not the giant that it used to be, but I firmly believe tourism could take its place as a major driver of inclusive economic growth and prosperity in our country. I say “inclusive” because it’s not enough to grow the tourism sector and tourism’s contribution to GDP if we don’t transform it and so empower the “little guy” to have a slice of the pie – the township B&B, the rural tour operator, the rickshaw driver, and so on.

As SA Tourism, we believe this could be much higher and that our tourism potential is hugely untapped. Here’s where you have a role to play as our newest tourism ambassadors, fresh out of college: YOU too can contribute directly to the economic prosperity of our country.

It’s in your hands. If go the extra mile to create hearty, memorable dishes that tantalise the diner’s taste buds… If you serve with a smile on your face and a spring in your step… If you have a positive attitude to your work and your country… If you strive for excellence and quality in all you do… Then travellers – locals and foreigners – will leave saying: “Wow that was an incredible experience. South Africa not only has amazing food, but warm, friendly people too. Truly a country of smiles.”

One small gesture can go a long way.

So as I congratulate you and wish all of you well as you embark on your exciting journey in the world of hospitality, I’d also like to invite you to join South African Tourism on our journey – to make South Africa a shining beacon of tourism.

Much as we have natural and scenic beauty, we believe our people are our greatest tourism assets. We know you have a passion for food – I’m asking you to extend that passion to your customers and all the people you interact with in your line of work.

So, whether you end up owning a Michelin-starred restaurant or running a chisa nyama, whether you’re serving presidents and kings or the worker who wants to buy a vetkoek on the street, please remember that we are all in this together. You ARE tourism.

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