Sad, I know, but the worst year many of us have experienced in tourism is almost over (in fact it *will* be over for This Tourism Week by the time you get this message – it’s my last mailer for 2011).

So what have we achieved? Has tourism actually gone anywhere since the FIFA World Cup?

Given that I’m sceptical of the statistics we’re fed, allow me to speak from the heart: I think that we have gone somewhere, and that somewhere is backwards.

I think there are three reasons for this. 1 – The world’s in trouble. 2 – Our country’s politics are in trouble. And 3 – As an industry, our thinking is in trouble.

There’s nothing we can do about 1: like everybody else, we’ll have to ride the storm and hope like hell that we’re flexible enough to take advantage of the results.

There’s not much we can do about 2: but the trouble is, the more we slide into graft and kleptocracy, the quicker we lose our credibility. And this will soon start to affect the numbers of long-haul visitors who choose to come here, and, by affecting our domestic economy, the numbers of domestic travellers who’re likely to be able to afford to go away on holiday.

This is why it’s so important that the tourism industry supports campaigns like Right 2 Know: we have to defend democracy if we’re to defend our industry.

There is, however, something we can do about 3. ‘As an industry, our thinking is in trouble.’

I’ve recently become involved in the research required for the creation of a local economic development and tourism strategy for a medium-sized municipality – and as one of the team noted this week, it’s something that’s required by the Constitution, but no one knows how exactly local economic development should be done.

I couldn’t agree more. Although the actual work on the project will only really get under way next week, I’ve been speaking to a number of people (in the town in question, and around the country), just trying to drum up some ideas for tourism development is concerned. It’s depressing. Everyone seems to be stuck on cultural villages (and you know how I feel about human zoos), arts and crafts cooperatives (which are OK, if you can produce quality and quantity that will sell in these difficult times). And sewing circles; don’t forget the sewing circles.

As important as these little projects may be, they’re always in danger of creating more expectations than jobs – and they’re often unlikely to be really self-sustaining. (And although as grass-roots projects they do have the potential to instill a certain amount of pride in the communities they touch, do they really do anything to alleviate poverty?)

My fear is that this little straw poll of mine is a microcosm of what tourism is all about in the dying days of 2011: our product offering, to use the cliché, is stale.

The big question we’ve all got to ask ourselves is – what could make South Africa the next big go-to destination? Coz right now, I can’t imagine why any one would want to sit on a plane for eight or ten hours, and pay the kind of prices those seats cost, to come to South Africa.

Sunny skies and Chevrolet? You can get those in Spain.

The democracy dividend? We squandered it.

Our various World Cups? Last week’s COP17? Yes, they gave us great publicity, and proved that we’re capable – no, damned good – at putting on mega events. But if we’re truly honest, which of them really left much of a legacy? (OK, so we’ve got all that lovely infrastructure, the roads, the unnecessary airports, the Gautrain, and such, but what happened to all the jobs that were created during the construction phase?)

The Big Five? You get more wild animals (and, I’m told, friendlier service) in East Africa – so why would a European, an Indian or a Brazilian come here? Especially when it’s so far away?

Our people? Bingo!

We have a wealth of cultures, brilliant writers, artists and performers, a glittering world of science, (and if you don’t believe me, just log on to Mossel Bay Tourism’s Archaeology page http://www.visitmosselbay.co.za/archaeology/ to learn about the amazing findings of the Mossel Bay Archaeology Project: this is where modern human behaviour began, guys!), and so on, and so on, and so on.

That’s where I think we should be looking for tourism’s new products – among the unusual ideas we have to offer and the unique stories we have to tell.

Exactly how to do that I’ve still to learn – but maybe the rest over the next few weeks will provide some answers. Or maybe you have some thoughts on the matter?

If so, please tell us in the space below.