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SA diving industry | Facing difficult times | Outdoor news
November 2014

Economy challenges

diving industry

Diving is the most cost effective way for your customers to be transported to a whole new world, seen only by those who don masks and snorkels to travel under water. Yet, the diving industry that makes this otherworldly experience possible, is facing many challenges, reports TRUDI DU TOIT

When diving, you enter a whole new world of unique colours, weightlessness, silence, and sights that you will find nowhere else on earth. You are transported to a hidden world, only shared by fellow divers and the sea creatures few other people get to see. “It is the closest you’ll get to space travel, because under water is a completely different world to above water.”

Listening to her passionate advocacy for diving as a sport, it is easy to see why Sarah Carter’s customers return to Dive Action in Cape Town for all their diving needs. Her loving description of the sport makes one wonder why diving is not compulsory as therapy: it’s healthy and keeps you fit, it can be enjoyed by everybody from 12 to 70 year olds, diving expands horizons and increases awareness of the environment. “It is a privilege to be under water. Every dive is different and there is a type of diving for everyone.”

But, the economy has not been kind to the diving industry. Dive shops from across the country report a downturn in recreational diving sales over the past few years.

“I believe the primary reason is simply that the whole country is finally feeling the recession that hit other parts of the world a few years ago,” says Rhys Couzyn of Scubapro in Johannesburg. “I don’t think it’s restricted to diving. My feeling is that in a different economic climate, diving would be stable and experiencing growth.”

Due to the economic downturn, a large proportion of the market that used to be able to purchase luxury diving items, can no longer afford them. Some store owners have found that customers buy better equipment that last longer — although the specialist stores mainly sell premium equipment that last, but due to the service they offer they attract a loyal clientele, explains Carter.

While customers are buying higher-end equipment, they don’t buy all in one shot. They rather buy one piece at a time till they build up a set, says Duncan Pattenden, owner of Orca Industries, also in Cape Town. Fewer shops

The consensus is that the economy has thinned out the number of diving retailers, but the dive shops that survive the tough times are the one’s ones that offer a good service and value, says Carter. “It’s the survival of the fittest. But there are not really new people entering.”

In Cape Town there are about four or five key dive shops that survive, while the rest come and go, adds Pattenden. “When one falls away, another pops up.”

Reducing the number of stores, is not necessarily a bad thing, because the industry in South Africa is overtraded, believes Couzyn. “There are too many brands for the size of the market. This leads to wholesalers often setting much lower entry requirements for retailers to be appointed than should be the case. People are then able to set up retail outlets without enough capital to actually buy stock, pay rent in a good retail location, do appealing shop fitting and employ quality staff. In short, it’s mostly too easy to open a dive store.

“The net result is that while the undercapitalised stores seldom last beyond a few years, they do dilute the business of the other stores and it becomes difficult for anyone to have enough economy of scale to run a truly professional retail store.” This problem has been created by “a money at all cost attitude from some wholesalers” says Pieter Herbst from Reef Divers in Pretoria. “Anyone with a little money can get a dealership. Qualifications or experience is not a criterion – as long as you pay, you get.”

Therefore, the demise of these fly by nights could be seen as a positive for the industry.

“I believe the SA industry would be better served by a smaller number of really professional retail outlets in key, highly visible areas than by lots of half-baked outlets,” says Couzyn.

“As an industry, if we want to attract and retain divers, we need our stores to be in busy locations, be well stocked and we need them to be manned by knowledgable, friendly and professional people. Every time a person enters a dive store, we need them to have a fantastic experience. There are a good few stores doing a great job but there are also a good number that are not.”

Other challenges

One of the reasons why there has been a decline in the number of dive shops worldwide is because they now have to compete against other sports, says Elzabe Boshoff, general manager of Ocean Divers International (ODI) in Port Elizabeth.

Competition from fast-growing adrenaline sports like mountain biking (see article p53), for example, has had an impact on the diving industry, as they draw potential enthusiasts away, adds Herbst. That is despite the fact that mountain biking gear is more expensive than diving equipment.

The diving industry is also very weather-dependent. “It's been a tough winter in Port Elizabeth, we were plagued with red tide for about ten weeks and a harsh and windy winter,” says Boshoff. “In those months we had a definite decline, but subsequently we're seeing a marked interest from people taking up scuba diving and refresher courses again.”

The cold water, rocky coastline and inclement weather poses a special challenge for Cape Town divers. “You need to be more committed to diving in Cape Town, than in areas where you can dive into warm, clear water,” says Carter. “You need very good, specialised gear.” She therefore finds that people would do a diving course with them before going on holiday or overseas — and not necessarily stay committed to the sport when they are back home.

Diving courses

People doing a diving course before a holiday, but not committing to the sport, is a challenge identified by many dive instructors.

Old divers across the world often attribute this is to inadequate diving training, says Couzyn. “But I think it’s only partially true. More than the training being inadequate, I think it’s a case of new divers not getting back in the water soon enough after their qualifying dives. The longer they leave it, the less confidence they have to do it the next time and as a result, the higher the likelihood that they drop the sport all together.”

The reasons why people don’t go diving again soon after their course are, for example, the proximity of local dive sites and the costs involved with diving, he says.

Herbst, a PADI Course Director, has a somewhat more cynical view of instructors who “enter the industry not to make it a career — rather to do as a gap year or part time thing.” Yet, they are supported by dealers who support them with product. “During bad times these part timers simply stop teaching and rely on their full time jobs — when times get better, they jump on board with all the support from dealers and depress the market again. This makes it impossible for the dedicated full time guys to make a reasonable income and grow their businesses.”

Internet sales, by online retailers as well as suppliers, are also impacting on the diving industry.

“Diving is an active and dynamic sport, which is very much safety based,” says Carter. “You need the training, expertise and advice from a qualified instructor, it is not just a question of buying equipment.”

Online sales

Through a dive shop, you join a team, she says, and you develop an ever strengthening relationship with that team as you progress: it starts with doing a diving course, and then progressively buying more advanced equipment. “It is a package that the customer buys into and the dive shop will support him all the way.”

On the internet, it is all about the sale - training, advice, and proper fitting is not part of the transaction, some dive store owners point out. Therefore, a potential customer will go to a dive store, where he will receive expert advice, but buy from the internet, where it is cheaper, because they have lower overheads.

Online sales are not limited to rival retailers — dive shops also suffer because some importers selling on-line “and setting up their own companies to effectively undercut their clients,” says Boshoff. “That definitely weakens the client relations and after sales service to the end user, as no one feels motivated to provide the best care if the local dive school isn't supported with the original sale.”

“Dive Schools can always continue the trust relationship with the client and build on their equipment range, care and continued education. That is effectively now being taken away by Importers and their direct or indirect involvement in online sales.” Importers selling directly to consumers over the internet do not contribute to growing the market like dive shops, who train new divers, adds Carter, and are therefore riding on the back of the people who invest in the diving business by offering advice and the training necessary to use the equipment.

“Nobody opens a dive shop to become rich. You do it because you love the sport and are keen to teach and share your experience with other divers,” she continues. “We want to share the underwater world as a lifestyle with our customers — but they (online sellers) are only interested in making money, not in developing relationships with their customers.”

Apart from not helping to grow the diving industry — this could shrink it, argues Couzyn. A good dive shop in every big shopping mall helps to promote diving to the public — therefore, if the shops can’t pay rent because they are not retailing equipment, diving becomes less visible and therefore more and more niche, he says.

Impact of legislation

In the Western Cape, the snorkel industry has further been affected by law enforcement officials overstepping the mark and the shortening of the Westcoast lobster season.

“Snorkelling in Cape Town seems to have taken a terrible knock,” says Pattenden. “Snorkel diving is a huge stepping stone into scuba diving. These potential scuba divers are already kitted and experienced, which makes them the perfect entry level scuba diver.

“I estimate we have lost about 30% of these Cape Town snorkel divers because of the Table Mountain National Park (TMNP), which has been declared a Marine Protected Area (MPA). Most divers feel that the TMNP officials are trying to stop snorkel divers from having fun.”

He adds that Underwater Africa, representing divers, has received numerous reports about law enforcement officers harassing snorkel divers at popular dive sites, asking for permits — which are not required — in a threatening manner. “It seems that many divers are not prepared to put up with this confrontation, even though they know the law.”

The controversies surrounding the licensing system and prohibition on diving outside certain hours in the TMNP, have also been a deterrent for scuba divers who are discouraged from pursuing their sport, agrees Carter, especially since divers perceive that there is a lack of action when they do report poaching activities. “The value of the license is not seen to be going back into the park,” she says.

What frustrates her most, is the fact that divers are observers, not harvesters or fishermen. Divers care for the environment, because they want to return to a beautiful spot to watch this amazing world, they don’t want to do anything to spoil it. “Government sees diving as a sport for the wealthy. But, we are ambassadors for the sea.”

The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) have only allocated 21 days for recreational divers during the forthcoming West Coast lobster season, while commercial harvesters are given six months to catch their allotment.

DAFF’s proposal to the Recreational Fishing Services organisation gives recreational divers three options, each with specific days allocated for catching crayfish: 4-6 days in November 2014, 4-9 days in December 2014, 2-5 days in January 2015, 2 in February and 4 over the Easter weekend. The dates are prescribed — depending on which of the three options the crayfishers choose — irrespective of the weather, which could prevent them from diving on any of those days.

“With such uncertainty about open or closed seasons, many divers just can't be bothered,” says Pattenden.

Beating challenges

But, it is certainly not all doom and gloom in the diving industry.

Their store is doing well because they are “improving product and diversifying by, for example, now adding the PADI Swim School to our product list,” says Boshoff. “We need to diversify and perhaps join hands with other sports to offer more varied dive travel and activities to stimulate multiple senses and family needs.”

In order to survive, a dive shop needs to diversify, agrees Pattenden — for example, by offering services like a dive charter boat, equipment servicing, scuba training, preferably the speciality training to attract the advanced divers as they tend to buy equipment. He offers these varied services in his store, which had grown turnover by about 10% on average every year over the past three years.

Gone are the days where you can sit behind a desk and expect to make a living selling dive equipment from passing trade, he says. “Those who do, don’t last. It has become a complicated mix of well trained, certified and experienced staff — and in an industry that is not known for great salaries, this is hard to maintain.”

The dive shop owners we contacted were not keen on the idea of an industry body to promote or regulate the sport, as every business owner should just promote diving in their own micro-environment, says Couzyn. “This does not mean that businesses cannot work together colaboratively, as some have started doing recently.”


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