Tourists ride bicycles during a Soweto bicycle tour that has become popular in the township. The writer says that this kind of tourism is an untapped source of income for many low income earners living in predominantly black areas in South Africa. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

On a recent oversight visit to the Maboneng Township Arts Experience in Langa, the argument around the importance and beneficial nature of township tourism was made overwhelmingly clear.

Growing at three times the world average, tourism has become one of the most important sectors in South Africa, creating almost a million jobs since 1994 and even overtaking gold exports as an earner of foreign currency. In comparison to mainstream tourism, however, township tourism is still marginal.

Research on tourism, in general, points to its macroeconomic effects such as gross domestic product growth and job creation. Research on a microeconomic level indicates, however, that employment is mainly located in the informal sector, which is associated with traditionally low-income sector jobs.

New areas

The South African Tourism Strategy Paper for 2011 to 2013 suggests that tourism needs to expand into new areas and to promote the direct participation of historically disadvantaged groups, because if tourism is to impact significantly on poverty and unemployment, then it must develop in areas beyond the traditional routes and nodes currently used.

Township tourism is a niche which offers guided tours of predominantly international tourists to townships.

A large number of these tours are based in Johannesburg and Cape Town and have become a well-selling product among tour operators.

Township tours in South Africa emerged after 1994, when townships as sites of political conflicts initially attracted visitors who were interested in South Africa’s democratic transition.

Today, township tour operators take visitors to sites of significance to the anti-apartheid movement, as well as of historically oppressed communities.

Although township tourism has, in the past, been a controversial issue – with some saying tourists are invited to “gawk” at other people’s poverty, it should not be viewed so one-dimensionally. The townships are rich in culture and have much to offer to visitors in terms of connecting with South Africans and learning about all aspects of our society.

Tour operators now frequently bus visitors into townships to look at local craft shops or to visit popular taverns and other experiences. But when tour companies change the focus of their visits to other areas, township residents and craft shops sit without income.

The Maboneng Township Arts Experience is a public arts intervention that works with homeowners from different townships around South Africa to create their residences into art galleries.

Together with gallery-home owners, they create festivals and permanent art homes called TAGs (Township Art Galleries). There are currently two TAGs so far, one in Alexandra Township (Alex TAG) and another in Langa Township (Langa TAG).

This is an amazing project, which showcases the benefits of township tourism when properly put into operation; they are trying to create structures that are sustainable. Township tourism development plays a vital role in highlighting tourism attractions, with a focus on culture and heritage, and to create unique visitor experiences.

In order to make township tourism benefit the community and industry, the Tourism Department must make available significantly more capacity building and resources. I am convinced that township tourism can create a variety of economic opportunities for township residents.

Tourism has a massive potential for job creation and already supports 1.5 million jobs. It is estimated that for every 12 tourists that come to South Africa, 1 job is created.

More importantly, the tourism industry creates jobs at all skill levels and is able to absorb a high number of unskilled workers. Apart from changing perceptions and helping to change the stereotype of township life and people, township tourism has a major role to play in the local economy.

Through the growing tourism sector, townships have become more accessible and opportunities have opened for black South Africans.

Township tourism has huge potential to provide ever-growing economic opportunities for local entrepreneurs to enter the ground tour operating business. If supported, it has a great contribution to make to overcome the legacy of social and economic exclusion, which has for too long characterised township life.

Given the job losses in the mining and manufacturing sectors, we need the tourism industry to keep South Africans working. It is only through job creation and robust economic growth that we will be able to unlock opportunities for all South Africans and give life to the freedoms on which our democracy is based.

* James Vos is the DA’s spokesman on Tourism.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.

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