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.

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2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On the State of Cultural Tourism in South Africa

  1. It would be interesting to consider whether Paul identifies with some of the issues raised at the ‘ Destination Slum’ conference presented by the University of the West of England, Bristol, in Dec.2010.

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