‘Township tourism’ is often best attraction

A PLACE TO MEAT: Visitors come here for our food and wine, our adventure offering and lifestyle, says the writer. Photo: jason boud

A PLACE TO MEAT: Visitors come here for our food and wine, our adventure offering and lifestyle, says the writer. Photo: jason boud

Published Nov 28, 2014


Cape Town - Many of our members and friends have told me that they’ve chosen a career in tourism because travel is about people. One year and a bit into my role as chief executive of Cape Town Tourism, I can truly confirm this.

It’s about people making connections, sharing stories, overcoming prejudice, experiencing different realities and absorbing all of that into a little part of themselves that is forever changed. It’s also about people’s incomes and careers, a larger economic picture and potential for us all.

In many ways, tourism has socially and economically shaped Cape Town over the past two decades. Cape Town is now so much more than a sea, sand and surf destination. Visitors come here for our food and wine, our adventure offering, our design and lifestyle, they also come here to experience a place in Africa that is like no other. The imprint of all of this is formed in part by the eye of the beholder – we come to a place with our own cultural preconceptions – but how we present our cultural experience is up to us. These are the stories that only we, the people of Cape Town, can tell.

Cultural tourism is a form of tourism that explores the lifestyle and behaviour of a group of people in a geographic space. This may include their religious practice, traditions, architectural norms, dress, culinary choices and so on. It is considered cultural tourism because it is an experience that is different from the culture of the visitor.

In Cape Town we have a large contingent of cultural tourists, visitors who are looking for an authentic experience, human interaction and a door into a different world. On average, cultural tourists are not only likely to spend more, they also bring cultural exchange.

While unanimous about the fact that cultural tourism is driven by a human need to interact and learn more about each other, there was interesting debate about how we package our cultural tourism offering. In this instance we looked at the idea of “township tourism”.

Cultural tourism is blended into many forms of visitor experience and yet “township tourism” seems to be relegated to its own niche. The township experience is often touted as the most authentic, most African experience of a trip to Cape Town.

Yet it’s in danger of being seen as one of the tick-box options on the list of attractions in much the same way that Table Mountain and Robben Island are. There are many different experiences of a “township” – from Langa to Gugulethu and Masimphumelele – all with different sub-cultures and experiences.

We considered the idea that township tourism was as much an experience of the city as any other and could be seen as a part of our urban tourism offering. Perhaps tourism in a township is a better perspective than township tourism?

By the same token, we cannot avoid the fact that townships have, for better or for worse, been labelled as such – and even those who live in them use that label. To some extent it has also become a brand.

Particularly from a marketing perspective, “township” is the most commonly understood reference point when looking for a cultural experience of Cape Town. We cannot erase collectively held definitions, but we can encourage reinterpretations of what this definition includes.

Our think tank took place at the Gugu S’Thebe Centre in Langa that showcases community talent and generates employment. The centre and the whole Langa Quarter Cultural Precinct is an exciting new development that will no doubt go a long way to reimagining the definition of “township”.

Intangible cultural heritage should not need to be contrived, but authenticity based on too much reality may not appeal to the curious visitor who is also a customer paying for an enjoyable experience. The line between cultural packaging and spontaneous human interaction is a difficult one to navigate and is no doubt the starting point for much criticism of tourism in the townships. Many suggest that it is window tourism, an exploitation of people’s everyday cultural norms or worse, a fabrication that is no longer relevant.

In truth it can be both of these things. It is up to us – the people, the travel industry, the citizens of “townships” – to ensure that this is not how the story goes.

How do we tell our story? Do we look to our markets and respond to their needs, tailor-making experiences that they can digest? Or do we offer that which is authentically ours, something that our visitors may not expect or imagine?

While we debate these ideas, it is vital that fledgling cultural tourism businesses are supported in terms of their operations and in the marketing and packaging of their businesses in a way that builds a healthy cultural tourism landscape. Cape Town Tourism can advise, support and connect small cultural tourism businesses to opportunities. Beyond this the greater tourism industry has a key role to play in how cultural tourism is framed.

This conversation belongs to the people of Cape Town because collectively we are the culture. We are the ones who are co-creating our cultural footprint. We are the ones who must represent those things most precious to us: history, memory, hope and evolution. As our culture changes so must we. It starts with you. Have you explored your city?

Have you been on any cultural adventures? How could cultural tourism change your community? We want to hear from you, @CapeTownTourism or through our Facebook page

l Enver Duminy is the chief executive of Cape Town Tourism.

Cape Argus

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