Some Thoughts on the State of Cultural Tourism in South Africa: Possible Solutions

Some solutions:

In my last blog I gave an overview of the current state of Cultural Tourism in South Africa, and it outlines some of the challenges as I see them.

So what about some solutions?

Firstly, I think we need to remain active in convincing the mainstream tourism industry that the current status quo is not in their interest. The same old itineraries are getting stale. Inclusion of quality cultural tourism product is in the interest of all those who sell South Africa. The research bears this out, but for those who tourism is serving presently, this is not a priority. The large inbound tour operators are the gate keepers, and it is them we need to target and convince. Most of the tourists coming into South Africa come through these inbound operators. Some are really trying to embrace a broader product that is more culturally reflective of who we are as a nation. Others, I fear are simply not being creative at all.

As the social media and internet become more influential in how visitors make decisions, information on the creative cultural products that do exist will become more prevalent, and indeed, Inbound operators who do not comply with a change in what clients want, could find themselves loosing traction in the market. It is important then, that those of us who engage with creative forms of cultural tourism make use of these new channels and opportunities. (I am but a novice in this social media world, but am very aware of the need to engage with this more)

Much work needs to be done on a local government level in terms of educating Tourism Managers, LED officers etc how the industry works. There needs to be a better understanding of the market demands, and in addition, the absolute pre requisite of using a sustainable tourism framework. Currently, most of the money spent is delivering no, or poor results

We must also  guard against cultural tourism interpretations that wish to portray cultural tourism as only rural, only traditional and wrapped in a time warp. It must include representations of urban African culture, and the dynamism that makes us such a unique and interesting destination.

We cultural tourism entrepreneurs must engage with organisations like SEDA and other national and provincial entities, to ensure that they provide that much-needed support to the existing enterprises providing quality cultural tourism opportunities. We must engage around initiatives like the TEP Hidden Treasures, and see whether they bear fruit, and ensure we have a voice in the roll out of these programmes. It is often far easier to criticize from the sidelines, but I believe much can be achieved in constructively engaging.

We must   raise up those champions of cultural tourism that currently exist. We must benchmark what is good and working, and we must ensure that we continue to find ways to facilitate pro poor business linkages. We as cultural tourism practitioners must collaborate and support one another, share market information and strategies. We have more to gain from co-operation than from viewing one another as competitors.

We must also be vigilant and guard against political opportunism. I had the opportunity to experience this first hand when I worked on the Kwam Emakana Homestay programme,in Grahamstown, where as the project grew in stature, more and more political owners emerged. The end result was that the actual homestay owners, lost a sense of ownership over their own project.

Perhaps if we did this, we would start to see South Africa represented as it should be, and the dominant voice that visitors will experience, will be not one voice, but many diverse, rich voices, which make South Africa a prefered tourism destination around the world!








Some Thoughts On the State of Cultural Tourism in South Africa

The South African tourism market has traditionally focussed on wildlife and wilderness, coastal tourism, business tourism etc. These entities are not devoid of cultural tourism possibilities, but we have in my view underplayed the value add that Cultural Tourism offers to the South African product. I sometimes feel like we are almost apologetic that we are in Africa, that we have a particular kind of culture is that is based in non western value systems, that our food is perhaps “strange” to some, that we are unrepentant about our political culture which champions democracy and is steeped in an understanding of colonialism and racism.

Cultural tourism offers us one of the best opportunities for participation of marginalised South Africans to participate in our tourism plant. But, often those with the greatest cultural and historical knowledge are also those with the least business experience, and have the least opportunity to set up tourism businesses.

Added to that, the dominant tourism paradigm from the private sector, for both international and domestic tourism is one that supports a status quo of an untransformed industry. It is one that is comfortable with the haves accruing most of the tourism benefit.

My own experience, taking a well crafted quality product into the mainstream inbound tourism industry has provided some bizarre experiences. I am a marketer of townships. And the imagery of those who sell South Africa is mostly that townships are places to be feared. They are filled with crime, unemployment, violence, Aids, and all things bad. And then we who trade within in this sector of the cultural tourism industry come and talk of Urban African Culture, the rich heritage of struggle, the adaptation of ancient often rural culture to the urban african context, of Mapantsula and Kwaito, of Ubuntu and home based  care as a response to HIV, talk of slaughtering for the ancestors on Saturday and singing gospel on Sunday. And talk about the profound changes that are occurring in our townships, of electrification, sanitation, and shopping malls in townships.

How is it possible that these contemporary facts of social history cannot be of interest to the tourist market.

A common response we get when selling to the inbound industry is that “we already do Soweto”. I often have to bite my tongue. The same sales manager will admit to doing a city tour of Cape town, a city tour of Durban, A city tour of Pretoria, but hey, if you have seen one township, you have seen them all. The history of the people of Soweto is apparently the same as that of Langa, of New Brighton of Kwamashu. Seen one black community seen them all it would seem. Is this not a racist fallacy?

Whatever we may call it, it is the dominant view. And it feeds my earlier question of  who is deciding what tourists experience. What is the dominant voice?

But as much as I wish it was, it is not only the mainstream inbound industry at fault, and they are certainly not all to be painted with the same brush. There is also a real problem with some of the product that has been taken to market in our quest to fulfill political mandates and transformation agenda’s. Some of the cultural tourism product that emerges is simply exploitative,  of a poor quality. They exploit both to the communities where they are based, as well as to the tourists who are exposed to them. They are tacky, devalue culture and traditions, and are often exploitative of poor and vulnerable people.

This kind of product does nothing to build on our cultural tourism plant. Rather it again re emphasises the point to the custodians of the status quo that cultural, often black product is inferior, poor quality and unsuitable.

We need to ensure that communities who are involved in the development and implementation of cultural product are made aware that tourism is a great builder, but it can also be very destructive. We need to ensure that cultural tourism operates very firmly from a sustainable tourism platform. We need to ensure negative social impact, the commodification of cultural practices and cultural heritage, is minimized. There is a fine line to be walked here, and stepping on the side of unsustainability will result in disastrous long-term consequences. We must also be careful of ‘community owned’ initiatives, where money is channeled into often dysfunctional community trusts. Often, this money becomes more of a source of conflict than a source of progress.

As mainstream, volume based tour operator, we at Calabash Tours have worked very hard at minimising negative impact, as have a couple of other cultural tourism products. Many of us are accredited with Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa, which has done an excellent job in advocating around sustainable tourism practices.Communities need to be well-informed about the impacts of tourism, both positive and negative. This is a current constraining issue, as we are still caught up in the hype of talking tourism up, and often fail to let communities know the risks.

Roshene Singh from SAT made an apparently controversial comment in parliament recently. She stated that SAT was very happy to market rural areas, but that they were struggling with the fact that very little saleable product existed. She said, correctly, that SAT was not responsible for developing product in these areas, but it was in fact a Local Government responsibility.

I know my own province best, and it is a largely rural province, and in nearly every single municipalities IDP you will see tourism mentioned as a poverty alleviator. Between, the Dept of Tourism, Poverty Relief Money and Local Government budgets millions upon millions of rands have been spent on tourism development, often cultural tourism. We have numerous cultural villages that have been built in the country. Many of them are white elephants. Trainers have benefitted  with all kinds of tourism related trainings. Consultants have generated business plan after business plan. But where  is the product? This is a critical constraint in my view. We have failed, with most of these developments to understand who the market is and what they want. We have also not effectively identified the entrepreneurs to champion these projects. To be a succesful cultural tourism entrepreneur requires a passion and desire to succeed in business. It does not mean being an employee. Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, so how are we selecting those who champion projects?

Some of these failures are quite evident to me before the project begins. A craft market built 30 kilometers down a dusty dirt road, off a tourist route, will NOT attract visitors. This is not rocket science, but it happens more than we would care to admit. The result is often a waste of money, but more significantly in my view, it is also another kick in the face for poor communities. Its dangling a carrot of economic opportunity for the poor, only to offer a carrot filled with worms.

A further constraint is that the government incentive schemes mainly focus on large infrastructure investment. While there is a place for this, much of the cultural product being developed is small micro product. Much of it has direct benefit to the poor, and is sustainable. I list product like Bulungula Lodge, Coffee Shack, Calabash Tours, Lebos Bicycle Tours, Awol, Dreamcatcher, Andelula Experiences, Shiluvari Lodge, among others

Many of these products have made a tremendous contribution to cultural tourism. Many, like Calabash have been internationally recognised, researched and praised. And yet for us, there is very little or no support forthcomming. We are hauled out of the closet by SAT when niche sustainable travel writers appear, and then out back in the closet again. Many of these businesses struggle, due to the fact that they work in a very sustainable manner, which often incurs some costs, and yet are hidden gems. If they have white owners, despite black shareholding, they are ignored even more.

Let us raise up what is good cultural product. Let us develop models from those who have succeeded, let us drive business and support towards them. Cultural tourism offers a wonderful opportunity for small, often black players to enter the market.

Many of these smaller products are Pro Poor, highly innovative, risk taking, and quality, and make a positive community impact..

Finally, where we have had great infrastructure investment and capital inputs, we must ask the question is the community befitting. I use two examples here. The Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthata, and the Red Location Museum in Red Location, Port Elizabeth. These could be iconic attractions that are catalysts to development of community based cultural tourism initiatives. In my view, both of these are a dismal failure in terms of developing community participation in heritage and cultural tourism. This is not their primary mandate, but certainly should be a spinoff of their existance. I have dealings with both institutions, as a consultant and a tour operator. If you go and visit Qunu and Mveso, and engage with the local people, who had such high hopes, you will find a story of opportunity lost. If you look at Tour operator itineraries, you again will not find either of these museums featuring as much as we would like..

The primary reason is because the museums stand alone, and have not developed creative cultural tourism experiences around them They are silo’s within communities steeped in culture, history and talent. Often, they in a very shortsighted way fulfill their mandate to preserve heritage – but so much more is possible, and with a broader perspective, these museums could be catalysts for social development and cultural tourism product.

Why I dont like Tuesday mornings

Every Tuesday, my morning chore is to put the garbage out for collection. The chore itself is not so bad, but it is the people I have to engage with when doing this that make me feel uncomfortable. South Africa has one of the largest gaps between rich and poor, and much of that is defined by race due to our past. About 40% of the people in the city where I live are unemployed. So that means that garbage removal days provide opportunity for some of the most marginalized and poor.

As I put my bags of garbage out, I encounter those whose lives are made up of moving from suburb to suburb on respective garbage days, looking for scraps to eat. I know them by now. And I am always caught a bit off guard, not knowing what to say to them. What is the right thing to say to someone who is going through your garbage bags, analyzing the contents carefully for anything of value, anything that can feed the crying mouths back home?

And what is the appropriate response to this inequality. I wonder about this a great deal. Should I sell what I have and give it away? Should I feed every person who knocks on my door? Should I pray harder for the poor? Shall I refer them to the church outreach? Should I invite them in to dinner?

In a developing country like South Africa, there is little social support for the poor. So poverty kind of becomes everybody’s business. Including mine.

I don’t know the answer.

But I have some strong opinions. Firstly I have worked out that I must take responsibility for myself and my own family. So selling all my possessions and giving them away will only add me to the poor. That is no solution. Secondly, no utopian society exists in the world as I know it. And thirdly, the issues of poverty are complex, and in order to understand them, I need to understand myself, and the inner source from which I operate. I must understand my own purpose on earth. I can only start there.

And this is where I find some respite from the chaos of thoughts; thoughts about what makes me so uncomfortable. By understanding my own self, and that as a human being I must acknowledge my interconnectedness with others. And that the gift/curse that I have of feeling empathy and pain when others suffer is to be used for good. And that my purpose on this earth is to be an open pair of eyes, that are unafraid to see what is. And that solutions come in the form of turning the garbage bag scrounger into a human with a name, a face, a history, a community.

But importantly for me, I am greatly comforted by the fact that no matter how big the problems around me appear, there is always something I can do. I as a human being do not have to accept the status quo. I can act. I do act.

For the last 12 years I have dedicated much of my creative energy to the pursuit of making tourism in my city something that affects the lives of the poor directly. In a positive, creative manner that creates opportunity. I have worked at setting up an NGO, which uses travel philanthropy as a strategy, along with other like-minded creative thinkers that provides support to poor communities, focusing primarily on education and skills development.

Tourism is my passion. Used correctly it’s a powerful tool that can make a meaningful impact in the lives of ordinary people. It can address poverty.

And it can help me feel better on Tuesday mornings.

Why Blog?

Indeed the question of why I should blog has been flipping around in my mind for some time. Off course, common knowledge appears to be that if you are not promoting yourself and your business or brand using the various forms of social media you are so out of touch your clients will never find you and you may endure a slow and painful demise!

There may be some truth in that, but I think there is also a lot of misinformation out there.

For someone like me, who has been labelled both a technophobe and a Luddite (i still have a working video machine and believe vinyl will make a comeback one day!) blogging seems to be a relatively simple way to communicate what I do, what I am thinking, what I think are some contentious issues, and I don’t have to communicate that in 140 characters.

So here I will be sharing what is happening in the communities we work with, what I think are some interesting observations about what is happening in tourism, my city, my country and most importantly trying to shake that label of Luddite (but vinyl will make a comeback – watch this space!)