Tourism in South Africa remains an untapped market. Yes, there are tourist destinations like Cape Town, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, but, as a country, we are barely scratching the surface when it comes to cashing in on tourism generally and township tourism, in particular.
The township economy could benefit tremendously from a tourism initiative packaged to benefit participants in the township economy. There has always been a reluctance to bring tourists to the townships because of the townships’ being poorly planned labour reserves. But the realisation that the economic change that is necessary to transform townships will not happen overnight has made it necessary to develop initiatives that will bring the economic growth that is necessary for change.
South African townships boast a huge array of historical landmarks that can add to the richness of a tour that foreign and local tourists alike can tap into. Current township tours offer very little interactive tourism. A guided bus tour and a meal at a trendy restaurant in Soweto are the standard fare. But South African communities have rich cultures that are celebrated at various events in various townships every single weekend. All that is needed is a calendar of the various events so that tourists can choose which event to attend. There are pockets of excellent cultural activities that take place, especially over month-end weekends which, if coordinated by the Department of Tourism and tourist companies, could see a lot of tourists spending money within the township economy. Historical sites like the Hector Pieterson Memorial, in Soweto, are the obvious ones and are already being patronised. But cultural and heritage tourism is clearly an untapped gold mine. It is such an indictment on the whole country that townships as big as Alexandra or Tembisa do not possess a unique cultural and heritage site where people can go on any day and view wares and clothing of the various cultures within these townships.
Commemorative tourism is another sector that has not been explored yet. The great bus boycott of the 1950s – staged to protest fare increases – saw many commuters travel to work on foot. This route and the one that was followed by Soweto schoolchildren during the 1976 protests against the use of Afrikaans as a language of instruction could be developed into great tours which, I am certain, backpackers would find attractive. Locals would also have constant reminders of the great history of this country.
Most bed-and-breakfast facilities in the townships were constructed with tourists in mind but, in some instances, these facilities have turned into undesirable crime dens. A tourist who is out to explore and experience the life of a South African township resident is all too often forced to find accommodation outside the township. This is mainly due to tour operators fearing for the safety of their clients. A concerted effort by the Department of Tourism and law enforcement agencies can go a long way towards ensuring that bed-and-breakfast facilities in the townships serve the purpose for which they were established.
Township tourism will also be boosted tremendously if the mindset of township residents is changed so that they no longer view tourists simply as curious onlookers but as investors in their neighbourhoods. In that way, every resident who comes across a tourist will always be ready and willing to assist. More importantly, every resident will view himself or herself as a potential businessperson with a product to offer the tourists.
The so-called slum tourism in countries like Brazil and India has become a serious generator of revenue – to the extent that international conferences are now held regularly to ensure that this tourism sector develops to its full potential. The greatest aspect will always be to emphasise the economic growth benefits that this tourism generates. It is quite obvious that this sorts of tourism is fraught with all sorts of ethical consideration. But to completely abandon a sector that can generate much-needed revenue simply for ethical reasons is akin to cutting our noses to spite our faces. Township tourism remains a gold mine waiting to be explored.