A group of women from Durban found a travellers gem in a village outside Matatiele in the Eastern Cape. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU

Four Durban women, intent on seeing more of South Africa, searched the internet for places to stay on their tour of the Eastern Cape and Western Cape. They found a little gem in a remote village near Matatiele and immediately included the Masakala Guest House on their itinerary.

The small accommodation establishment, on the border of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, with Lesotho across the border from the southern Drakensberg mountains, is part of a 2002 initiative that identified tourism and agriculture as strategies to alleviate poverty.

Monica Matthewson, one of the group who spent the night in the village, was charmed by the experience.

“What made it particularly interesting were the surroundings,” she said. “The African-themed accommodation was modest and immaculately kept, the food good.

“But what I enjoyed most was the insight into the life of an African village. Here we could watch the goats being herded along the road and observe women carrying water to their homes. It was a tranquil, rural experience.”

Masakala, a traditional guest house, and the Mehloding Adventure Trail that came into being as part of the Alfred Nzo district municipality’s key integrated sustainable rural programmes, is becoming an increasingly popular destination.

Robert Mnika, one of the initiators, says tourism was a new concept when the scheme was first mooted in the village.

The area was not on the tourist map. Nonetheless, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism funded both initiatives through poverty relief programmes.

“We haven’t looked back since,” Mnika said. “Villagers embraced the concept and today 459 people benefit from tourism. We continue to source funding to further develop our eco-tourism projects.

“Apart from the guest house, we have the Mehloding adventure trail, which is a four-day hiking excursion with accommodation provided in chalets. It crosses the southern foothills of the Drakensberg and each chalet sleeps 12. The Masakala guest house provides African-style accommodation for 14.”

To keep tourists busy, the local authorities have lined up an array of activities. Guests can go mountain biking, horse riding, hiking and rock art viewing – as well as visiting local sangomas or joining traditional dancing.

“It is an old African tradition that visitors be treated with great respect,” Mnika said.

“Our people feel honoured when visitors come. We are now working to clear alien plants, build footpaths and construct four wooden pedestrian bridges along the trail to ensure the safety of our guests when crossing rivers.”

The two community projects, representative of a growing number of job-creation tourism initiatives in South Africa, is in line with UN World Tourist Organisation (UNWTO) thinking that views local culture as an important facet in international tourism growth.

In a global society where communities round the world are linked by television and an array of technological advances, people have become increasingly interested in different societies.

There is a need to experience the lives of others and in the process better understand our fellow man. Tourism, even with its attendant hazards, has become the great leveller. This is particularly true of South Africa, a society seeking to build bridges across the divide.

Peter Debrine, a representative of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation believes cultural heritage is the ultimate expression of the people: “This expression is shared with tourists and it is this interaction which makes tourism such an important vehicle for promoting cross-cultural understanding.”

Community tourism is growing in South Africa but it is not the sole focus of a campaign that seeks to open all nine provinces to the benefits of tourism.

The Sho’t Left marketing campaign highlights often unseen wonders, people and places. According to Roshene Singh, SA Tourism’s chief marketing manager, it “profiles all corners of the country”.

Last year some eight million visitors, many drawn by the World Cup, visited South Africa. By 2020, an estimated 15 million tourists are expected, creating an anticipated 225 000 new jobs.

The projection is in line with UN figures that predict an additional 43 million people worldwide will travel next year, pushing the current figures beyond the one billion mark.

Twenty years later, by 2030, more the 1.8 billion tourists are expected to travel annually, with emerging economies likely to grow at double the pace of advanced economies.

This means that, within two decades, five million people a day will be crossing international borders for leisure, business or other purposes, such as visiting friends and family.

Singh says the international consulting firm Goldman Sachs predicts that the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) markets will dominate global tourism in the next 10 to 20 years, while the IMF claims this consortium will account for as much as 61 percent of global tourism growth – as source markets – within three years.

“South Africa echoes these trends,” Singh added. “We are seeing encouraging growth from new emerging markets and from the Brics partner markets, in particular.

“Chinese arrivals in South Africa this year are up by 17 percent, Indian arrivals are up 41.8 percent and Brazil’s by 31.5 percent on 2009 arrival figures. These numbers tell the real story of the future of our industry. However, we continue to invest in our traditional markets in western Europe, Australia and north America.”

The industry does not foresee that the growing tourism market will place particular pressure on the country’s infrastructure.

The developments completed for the World Cup last year have left a solid base for tourism growth – the Gautrain, for instance, is just one of many advances that will benefit the industry in the coming years.

A survey by Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, published in August, found that South Africa gained about 10 000 more hotel rooms between 2007 and 2010, 21 percent more rooms in the build-up to the World Cup.

Singh says that while there is certainly an oversupply, the hotel industry can counter this by focusing on domestic travellers who, in current circumstances, are more likely to fill hotel rooms than long-haul overseas visitors.

Worldwide, the total contribution of travel and tourism to employment is estimated at 7 percent to 8 percent, making it a vital contributor to the global development agenda.

It is regarded as a fast entry point into the workforce for young people and women and it provides opportunities for fair income, social protection, gender equality, personal development and social inclusion.

The UNWTO secretary general, Taleb Rifai, predicts that the next 20 years will see continued growth that offers immense possibilities for social progress and environmental upliftment.

“By creating sustainable enterprises and decent jobs, the industry provides the necessary security and stability for millions of people worldwide to build better lives,” he says.

“Both established and new destinations can benefit from this trend, provided they shape the appropriate conditions and policies with regard to business environment, infrastructure, facilitation, marketing and human resources.”

He warns, however, that with these opportunities, challenges will inevitably arise. By taking full advantage of tourism’s social and economic benefits, and failing to take sufficient care, the environment could be negatively impacted.

“It is more important than ever that all tourism development be guided by the principles of sustainable development,” he added.

The gentle footprint of the villagers near Matatiele could serve as something of a role model for tourism worldwide. - Pretoria News