Tapping into tourism

2013-06-14 00:00

SOUTH Africa successfully hosted the Soccer World Cup in 2010. We celebrated, and Durban continues to host national and international events. Last year, the G20 heads of state named tourism as an emerging driver of global economic recovery.

As a consequence, the government has set specific targets for the tourism sector to improve on broad-based participation and access by rural households to revenue generated by tourism. The tourism economy remains intangible for many, so how should this happen in small rural towns such as Ixopo and Highflats?

And what is the tourism economy? In simple terms, it is about getting visitors to stay and spend money in a locality. They can be domestic or international visitors. There should be something attractive to see and/or do that will persuade visitors to spend more time and money. It means transforming historical events, unique architecture, culture and heritage, sport, entertainment, business and natural beauty, into products and services that generate money and employment.

What shape should the tourism economy in Ixopo and Highflats take to realise these goals?

The municipality should be branded so that it can offer the unique local products. What stories can be told about this locality? Highflats is the hometown of brave women and men of the liberation struggle such as Dr Margaret Mncadi and Reggie Hadebe. Nokweja, through to Umzimkhulu, is the home of the AmaBhaca clan and the history of the Madzikane. Alan Paton put Ixopo and Carisbrooke on the world map and the oldest narrow-gauge steam train, which travels between Ixopo and Carisbrooke, has been named after him.

The travels of Trappist monks left a trail of architecture and industrial innovations of the time in the area. It is also the home of the endangered blue swallow and other rare bird species.

Great entrepreneurs such as Redford Chonco and MaMcwabe Dlamini survived there in the most oppressive times — Chonco used to transport protesters during Operation Mayibuye.

The eighties saw black retailers establishing Okwethu Wholesalers in the middle of the rural settlement of Jolivet. Jolivet also has historic connections to France’s Napoleon Bonaparte. Indeed, there are many interesting stories about this region. The point is that we owe it to Paton’s book (Cry, the Beloved Country) to put Ixopo on the tourist’s map.

Tourism is about selling experience and local stories. Local government should encourage and facilitate the documentation and telling of stories. Unless local people start writing their own stories, we will continue praising the tourism offerings of the big towns, and consequently push the small-town tourism economy to the periphery. We should make use of public instruments to support interventions that are proportional to the tourism demand. These should take rural communities beyond craft and simulated traditional performances.

Local government should prioritise the provision of public infrastructure in order to leverage private-sector investment in areas such as restaurants, accommodation, annual events and many other facilities that encourage tourists and travellers to spend.

The tourism industry, in general, is struggling to show evidence of economic inclusivity in its value chain. It is struggling to build the essential platforms that encourage established tourism businesses to work with emerging providers in growing the local tourism industry. The local tourism industry is hampered by a shortage of accommodation, and conferencing facilities are close to non-existence. It is also stressed by institutional challenges that make it difficult for business owners to work as a unit. The limited number of beds in the Ubuhlebezwe Local Municipality suggests that the town is not ready to host major events. This is an opportunity for collaboration. The local hospitality industry has not exploited opportunities associated with the growing number of public servants. For instance, public servants and travellers are denied decent eating houses and relaxation facilities in the area. Subsequently, they spend their earnings in the big cities, again denying small towns the means to grow their economies. This is another thirst that local investors can quench.

There are many areas that can benefit from the emerging tourism sector. Besides targeting the unemployed and the youth, local government should consider investing in customer care for local businesses. They should see that tourism is connected to other businesses. For instance, a well-informed petrol attendant, with a basic knowledge of what is on offer for tourists, and a good attitude, could offer directions, thereby helping to persuade tourists to return to the region. Local government should invest in developing more tourism offerings that are based on the uniqueness of areas and the stories of communities. This may necessitate engaging universities to research the many interesting stories. It should include investing in infrastructure that encourages the staging of events. In this way, small towns would start benefiting from tourism and we would see an improvement in household incomes.

• Nqe Dlamini is a rural development consultant.

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