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South Africa races ahead of Kenya with virtual safaris

FINANCIAL STANDARD
By Clay Muganda | March 22nd 2016

During the week Kenya was preparing to send a contingent to Germany, a tourism event of a different kind was taking place in South Africa.

When it comes to tourism promotion, or marketing itself as a destination, the Rainbow Nation has embraced technology and is reaping the benefits.

Meanwhile, in Kenya, every year, heads of Kenya’s tourism bodies wax lyrical and promise to deliver the moon, but then fail to even bring dust from or photographs of the lunar landscape. They then give a host of excuses that largely start and end with the failure of foreign governments to recognise Kenya as a ‘safe’ destination.

And so, during the week that Kenyans were getting ready to invade Berlin for the Internationale Tourismus Boerse (ITB) travel trade show — and employ traditional tourism marketing methods — South Africa was getting a leg up from Google to grow tourism.

Google Maps launched Mzansi Experience: Discover South Africa. The initiative is a partnership between the technology giant and South African National Parks (SANParks) to collect and “stitch together” images using cutting-edge technology (the Street View Tripod and Trekker). This allows 360-degree views of South Africa’s top tourist destinations.

The image are available in more than 75 countries, and in parts of the Arctic and Antarctica. The collection of maps includes Table Mountain National Park, Cape of Good Hope, Kruger National Park and Lion’s Head.

Ideally, Mzansi Experience will allow local and international tourists to visit a family of elephants in the Kruger National Park or take a virtual walk on Table Mountain.

Inspire visits

Speaking at the launch, Google South Africa’s communications and public affairs head, Mich Atagana, said the “imagery seeks to showcase the beauty of the country to those who are interested in virtually travelling here, and will hopefully inspire them to visit in person.”

“We are excited about the many possibilities we have yet to explore, and to bring more useful and beautiful imagery to Google Maps users around the globe,” she said.

At the launch, the country’s tourism minister, Derek Hanekom, said that at first he was worried about virtual tours, but now sees them as driving tourism, and praised Google and SANParks for their forward thinking.

“Virtual tourism is getting better and better, but I do not see it as replacing actual tourism. Instead, it creates a stronger desire to travel and helps those abroad to be inspired to visit.”

Currently, Ms Atagana said, there are more than one billion monthly active users of Google Maps. Such numbers will definitely help boost South Africa’s vibrant tourism industry.

Paddy Gordon, the park manager at SANParks’ Table Mountain National Park — which records upwards of one million visitors a year — also admitted that the imagery on Google Maps might be a concern for the sector, but he was upbeat it would help tourists decide to visit physically.

When it comes to marketing destinations, Mr Gordon said history, culture and activity work together. And that there is need for partnerships, and neither the tourism ministry nor SANParks can succeed without others, including tech partners.

“Technology, such as Google Maps, is going to make a difference for travel in future. This is the only way people will discover you because we are moving to a place where if something is not online, then it does not exist,” he said.

Luke McKend, the Google South Africa country manager, added that Street View is driven by users, thus more imagery is collected where there are more people.

“We want to expand this initiative to the whole of Africa and encourage people to upload imagery themselves, with Google becoming more of a platform for them to participate on,” he said.

To be fair to Kenya’s tourism bodies, however, Samburu National Park has been mapped by Google Street View to raise awareness of the reserve’s efforts to protect the elephant population.

The project was created in partnership with Save the Elephants, and with the support of the Samburu County government.

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