5 questions: How a fresh take on township tourism can boost SA's economy

Rural and township tourism are the kind of innovative offerings SA's tourism industry needs from small businesses, CEO of SA Tourism Sisa Ntshona has said.

Ntshona spoke to Fin24 on the sidelines of the Internationale Tourismus-Borse (ITB) world travel trade show, recently held in Berlin, Germany. He shared views on what SA Tourism is doing to help develop small businesses.

"We are happy to support new players as long as they come with new and differentiated products and experiences that add to the product set SA Inc has to offer," he said.

He added that small businesses should complement and not just duplicate what already exists in the industry.

"[They must] bring things like rural tourism to fore, township tourism to fore, food, culture, flavours," he said.

Ntshona spoke about a small tour operator in Knysna, Western Cape, who takes tourists to traditional Xhosa weddings. 

One entrepreneur who has been offering township experiences for tourists for the past 10 years is Siyabulela Siyaka, owner of Ubizo Events and Tours. The business offers tours in Cape Town townships Langa and Gugulethu. Tourists – whether they be backpackers or corporate figures - can travel by taxi and have an opportunity to visit a local sangoma.

Siyaka shared with Fin24 why and how he started his business, which now includes a team of 10 tour guides.

Fin24: How did you identify a gap in the market to do township tours?

Siyaka: I was born and bred, toasted and buttered in Langa (a township in the Western Cape). I was a student doing internal auditing. I started taking university students on tours to townships through informal meetings. I showed them around the 'hood. Nothing fancy, but offered them a cultural experience. I decided we might as well do something better than this. I started working with the local universities, from there I started working with tour operators, conference organisers.

Fin24: How do you define a cultural experience?

Siyaka: Basically it’s a cultural exchange where I get to teach them about our customs and traditions and that township is not about poverty and suffering. There are people staying there (in townships) who are rich in culture, stories and history.

A township is one of the best spaces to be to engage and interact with locals. We worked closely with everyone from the community to make sure we share the pie with them as well.

Fin24: How did you get in touch with other industry players like the tour operators?

Siyaka: It's about going out there and sniffing around to find out who is who in the zoo. I started by attending networking functions from local associations like SATSA (Southern Africa Tourism Services Association), SACCI (The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry).

That was when I was exposed to the industry and then I started to attend travel trade shows, which gave me more exposure to the industry. I could keep up with new trends, technology and network of course.

Fin24: What has been your biggest challenge in the industry?

Siyaka: Getting access to the market, it is not easy. You need to attend prestigious events and it comes at a high cost. You also have to position and develop a strategy for township tours to be included in travel itineraries.

Fin24: What are some of the things tourists are seeking?

Siyaka: People are looking for experiences and they also want to work close with people with expertise of those experiences. For a business like mine which specialises in township experiences, that's where we stand a good chance.

We offer different experiences for different tourists.

Backpackers want to feel like locals, so you can't offer them a "luxury" experience. They want to jump onto taxis and feel like locals.

You can't offer delegates from a conference a tour, because they have their own programme which they need to stick to. But we can offer them a taste of local cuisine, let them listen to local music at events after their formal programme.

Fin24: How do you ensure it is safe for tourists?

Siyaka: Safety is the number one priority. It starts by working close with the community. The minute you get locals involved, it makes life easier and there is no need to phone the SAPS (SA Police Service), because the community will back you up.

From hosting one event – so many businesses can benefit. A security company, a business to hire out sound equipment, catering, photographers, the list is endless for one event. It’s not like communities do not have the infrastructure - the infrastructure is there.

Fin24: What is the most important lesson you have learnt?

Siyaka: There is growth, but at a very slow pace. I guess good things come to those who have patience. You need to understand the game first before you make money.

Fin24: Is there value in partnering with other businesses?

Siyaka: Yes. What inspires me to do what I am doing is a very old man from Langa who was unemployed. He had the knowledge and was able to convert his environment to get monetary value out of it.

He lived in a shack, and decided to create a story and offer an experience to the visitors out there and share about his background. He was able to make a living from that. He didn't do any marketing, but local tour operators included his story on their tours. People (tourists) just came and paid him to host and experience what it is like to stay in a shack.

Fin24: How important is perception about South Africa to your business?

Siyaka: For sure, bad news about SA impacts business, in so many ways. Either directly or indirectly. The water crisis impacted business hugely.

The murder of Anni Dewani also impacted business. People thought tourists were getting killed in townships because of that. By the time the truth was revealed it had already caused huge, negative exposure.

This is why one of the reasons it is important to come to trade shows - is to tell people that townships are not about poverty, and not just about driving through.

Fin24: How did you raise capital to start your business?

Siyaka: To be honest, I just used everything under the sun to make things work. I took full advantage being born and bred from these local communities. It can only take someone, who sleeps there and eats there, to offer an authentic experience to tourists.

I also had to go out there to know what was trending, and who is who in the zoo, to tailor an experience for consumers.

After using everything under the sun I also used the programmes offered by development agencies offered by government. Without those development agencies from government, I do not think Ubizo would be where it is now.

Fin24: What is your message to other entrepreneurs who want to start businesses?

Siyaka: We all came in this life for a purpose. One needs to be realistic and know yourself and what it is you want to achieve and what are your passions. The minute you follow that, then money will follow you.

Make sure go out there and network and find out what develop agencies are there within your industry. Network, network, network.

*Fin24 was a guest of SA Tourism, which exhibited at ITB Berlin.

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