Leave emotions aside, use land reform for tourism benefit - Thebe Tourism CEO

Take emotions out of the land debate and rather look at how fallow land can be turned into tourist destinations to benefit surrounding communities, says Jerry Mabena, CEO of Thebe Tourism.

Mabena was speaking at the Africa Travel Summit hosted by Airbnb at the Guga S'thebe cultural centre in the Cape Town suburb of Langa on Wednesday.

“Some of the fallow land in SA is situated in some of the most iconic areas and yet the people in those areas are living in poverty,” Mabena said as part of a panel discussion on how one can design tourism that works for everyone.

“We need to see how land can be used properly to create employment and as an opportunity to include people who are currently on the sidelines of the SA economy.”

For him it is important that the use of technology is included in such a process. He also thinks a platform like Airbnb can play a role in helping to leapfrog blockages in the process.

“There are opportunities for creating new experiences beyond the traditional tourism models. It is about more than what I call ‘the zoo model’ where tour buses go to townships and take photos of people as if they are in a zoo,” said Mabena.

“The opposite is where one creates really unique experiences with the people of a destination, moving away from the traditional model. Airbnb now enables travellers to wake up in a traditional SA community.”

Mabena said it is important to not only to create such experiences, but to curate them properly so that the communities operating them benefit too. This will enable such tourism to be sustainable over the long-term.

Chris Lehane, head of policy and communications at Airbnb, said during the panel discussion that the platform is not about moving travellers from traditional hotels into Airbnb establishments.

“We do not see traditional hotels as our competition, although they might think otherwise. We want to see the entire tourism industry working together, creating different types of experiences which ultimately can enrich local people,” he said.

He added that travellers increasingly want to have authentic experiences. They want to go where locals go.

As for the use of technology in this process, Lehane said, instead of using the traditional hierarchical, industrialised “gatekeeper” type of tourism model, Airbnb uses a community-based model with a lot of people-to-people connection. He said the Airbnb type of model will only keep on growing if people believe they are gaining from it.

One of the things he realised from his grassroots experience in SA, is that although Airbnb hosts in townships have access to technology devices, the cost of using these can be prohibitive. He said that raised the question of whether these hosts could not be turned into “21st century library WiFi hubs which others in their communities can access to gain knowledge and also getting more people to engage on the Airbnb platform".

“We cannot just sit there in San Francisco and have ideas. We have to see how it works on the ground,” he added.

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