A little smile goes a long way

Posted by Raashida Khan on 05 September 2016 2:15 PM CAT

I was fortunate enough to travel to very two different and alluring foreign cities, this past week – Paris and Abu Dhabi. On my return to Johannesburg, as I walked through the international arrivals terminal, I was awed by the stunning images of tourist spots of our own really beautiful country. The images were big, impressive and inviting. It was not the first time I have been blown away by the advertising that SA Tourism is responsible for. Another favourite is the television advert targeting the international markets a few years ago

South Africa is blessed with a multitude of advantages to maximise the potential of tourism, and the positive spin-offs thereof. We have a diversity of landscapes (beach, bush, berg), wealth of wildlife, sound infrastructure, fantastic hotels, first world banking facilities, and something not normally considered a plus – a weak currency. Our international airport is gateway to many neighbouring countries, making the Joburg airport the busiest in Africa, ranking above Cairo and Cape Town. 

In spite of this, I feel we miss a very important trick. We are not the warm, friendly, welcoming people we would like to think we are. When leaving, the staff at Johannesburg International Airport security gates, and immigration barely look at you, forget greet you. At passport control, the attendant reached for my document without looking up, asked a perfunctory question or two, processed whatever he had to, then indicated with his hand (rather rudely) that I should walk to the side of his counter to receive my stamped passport, which he handed back without another word. I doubt he would have noticed if I was indeed the person in the photograph.    

I compared this to my arrival at Charles de Gaulle. As one steps off the plane, the attendants waiting with wheelchairs nod and smile welcomingly. Every step of the way, you are greeted and guided expertly through immigration, baggage retrieval and transport. At hotels, restaurants and stores, assistants and waiters are helpful and insightful, and very importantly, engaging. They are keen to know where you are from, and happy to share something about themselves in turn. ‘How are you enjoying your holiday?’, was a question often asked. I responded positively and each time, the locals were thrilled to hear that. Next they might ask how long your stay is, what you have done, readily suggesting additional options. I was delightfully surprised, as I was expecting the French to be snooty to tourists. In the week I was there, I encountered just one surly person – a cashier at a take away place who seemed somewhat miffed that I did not order milk the same time I ordered a cup of tea!

When leaving, every person we encountered at the airport wished us a pleasant or safe journey back. The warmth I felt made me want to return as soon as I could afford to.  

On our return to Johannesburg, the wheelchair attendants engaged in loud conversations with each other, unaware that paying passengers were passing by them. My husband shook his head, and said with a smile, ‘Now you know we’re back in SA.’ I had to agree - my happiness at returning home was dampened by the realisation that seasoned, international travelers would leave South Africa thinking that South Africans are inhospitable. I hope the attitudes of everyone who comes into contact with tourists will be improved by the realisation that we are dependent on tourism, and that this sector has the potential to grow by leaps and bounds. Each of us has a responsibility towards that, and that’s as easy to fulfill as a simple smile and a cheery greeting.   


Raashida Khan is Account Director at Indigo New Media who loves South Africa and travelling.


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