Shangaan women at Thomo Heritage Park.

Johannesburg - Tourism is one of the biggest job creators in the world and was recognised by the G20, at its summit in Mexico in June, as a driver of economic growth, marking the first time travel and tourism has been included in the G20 Leaders’ Declaration.

What has also become clear is that local enterprises need a traveller market to connect to in order for jobs to be created and sustained.

Driving through the picturesque landscape of Limpopo, many travellers passing through are on their way to the Kruger National Park or one of the surrounding private game lodges.

In an ideal world, these travellers, local and international, would spend time in local towns, staying overnight on their way in or out of the park to get a taste of the real Africa.

Money transfer company Western Union has sponsored a travel route in Limpopo along the western border of the Kruger park, where the perfect opportunity exists for travellers to get the best of both worlds – a taste of real Africa and the ultimate safari experience.

In time, this travel route and marketing efforts generated by it aim to drive travellers into off-the-beaten-track areas to learn more about the culture, history and heritage of the surrounding areas while enjoying the smaller tourist attractions, helping to sustain livelihoods in these parts.

Bertha Shlaisi Baloyi of the Greater Giyani Jewellery Project in Giyani, a town about 80km north of Phalaborwa, used to employ 39 beaders but now has only 11. Most of her staff left as they were not generating enough income.

“We make beautiful things but we need to connect to a market. Our staff are trained for up to five years in various traditional Shangaan beading techniques, but without a market we cannot survive,” says Baloyi.

Rich Mabunda, the project manager at Thomo Heritage Park 8km outside Giyani, says the park is an Iron Age site and living museum where guests can sleep in traditional Tsonga huts, dine on traditional fare and learn about the culture and history in Mabunda’s guided tours of the park.

“We get visitors from as far as China, Holland and the United States of America,” he said. “But sometimes we can go up to three months without visitors.”

Thomo’s electricity supply is off-grid, so every time guests book in, Mabunda has to buy petrol for his generator, a costly piece of equipment to run with the price of petrol these days. Mabunda makes little to no profit at the end of his guests’ stay.

This is the sad reality for most rural tourism enterprises. If a more vibrant market existed, more jobs could be created, standards would improve and rural areas would thrive on the influx of travellers, giving local communities a sense of pride in their heritage and attractions in their area, as well as the working capital for the resources they can’t otherwise afford.

In a country so rich with cultural heritage and history, diverse people and places and a plethora of attractions to keep any visitor happy, why is it that tourists are bypassing the rest of South Africa to get to “the good stuff” when so much of it is on our doorstep?

The only solution seems to be that travellers should be working towards discovering more about the country they live in, not only to uncover the hidden treasures but in support of job creation, quality work and poverty reduction.

Western Union recently sponsored Open Africa’s Rixile Culture to Kruger Route in an effort to support rural tourism and economic development in the area stretching from Phalaborwa to Giyani. - Saturday Star

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