Bo-Kaap and gentrification: When your home becomes a tourist attraction

There’s a special place in Cape Town’s city centre that can’t be matched when it comes to providing an authentic cultural experience in a location that holds a tumultuous history, set against the backdrop of the majestic Table Mountain.

This is Bo-Kaap.

When slavery was abolished the area became home to many freed slaves of Malay and Muslim cultural and religious heritage and grew into a vibrant community over generations. Now the colourful houses along the cobbled streets have become synonymous with marketing the city and grace the pages and sites of travel platforms that showcase South Africa.

SEE: WATCH: #LoveSA Magical Bo-Kaap explored

While everyone is in awe of the unique site and iconic colourful houses that represent a pivotal change in SA’s political landscape, together with the culture and historical experiences that all walks of life can now enjoy in Bo-Kaap, the suburb remains just that – home to the many generations who have grown up and live there.

With plans for gentrifying the area causing much social debate and hostility from residents, a movement called Bo-Kaap Rise was formed to protest against gentrification and fight for the sustainability and heritage of the community.

ALSO SEE: Battle for Bo-Kaap: 'Gentrification is too beautiful a word for what's happening here'

In light of the protests, Shakirah Dramat, a member of Bo-Kaap Rise shared some of the movement’s concerns regarding tourism with Traveller24, highlighting that tourists need to be more mindful during their visits to the popular area.

How to be a mindful tourist

Local and international tourists want authentic experiences, and places like Bo-Kaap are able to share such authenticity when tourists respect certain legal or social boundaries.

According to Dramat, the increase of tourism in Bo-Kaap has resulted in traffic congestion and an invasion of privacy. She says that tourists need be informed on the “etiquette of the community” and respect the privacy of residents.

“A lady told me that one day she was sweeping her lounge without a scarf and her door was ajar, when a tourist took a photo of her,” explains Dramat as an example of invading locals’ privacy.

Enver Duminy, CEO at Cape Town Tourism told Traveller24 that Bo-Kaap is “one of our most cherished neighbourhoods in the city”.

“Residents of the neighbourhood are upset that their private homes have become a tourist attraction, and it’s important to put yourself in their position: what if groups of visitors were being shown your house as an attraction?” says Duminy, adding that tourists should be more considerate of locals.

In addition to this, she says that many tour guides lack sufficient information and knowledge on Bo-Kaap’s history and heritage, thus misleading tourists.

Tourists are advised to do their research before booking tours to ensure that they get the right information and best value for money. Tourists are also encouraged to visit museums and cultural landmarks for a richer experience, instead of only doing walking tours and snapping quick photos.

Is tourism in Bo-Kaap sustainable for the community?

Dramat tells Traveller24 that “tourism hardly benefits the greater community” even though it’s marketed by the city as a must-see site in Cape Town.

“There are only a handful of local tour guides, a few ladies who offer home cooking classes and only a couple of small local businesses in Wale and Rose Street. Many of the big tour operators only use Bo-Kaap as a quick photo stop on a bigger route, which means that tourists don't have much time to spend at the few shops or offerings that we do have, and of late, many of the businesses opening up in our area aren't even owned by locals,” she says.

Following the protests, Rashid Toefy - Deputy Director-General of Economic Operations at the Department of Economic Development and Tourism for Western Cape - and Duminy met with Bo-Kaap residents who don’t believe they are adequately benefiting from tourism.

ALSO SEE: #LoveSA: Bold, beautiful Bo-Kaap cuisine gets global nod

“The essence of the Bo-Kaap is its people, and if gentrification pushes them out as a result of high property prices, or property rates, then the Bo-Kaap loses the thing that makes it so culturally unique. At the same time, the Bo-Kaap should not be a place where bus-loads of tourists disembark each day, take photos in front of locals’ homes and leave again, without developing and growing the area and its economy,” says Toefy.

He adds that there is a need to develop tourism opportunities for Bo-Kaap locals, and that his department and Cape Town Tourism “are committed to ensuring that this happens”.

“The first step towards this has been engaging with community members on their own tourism plan, which officials will help to develop and shape so that knowledge of local community members and their skills become a selling point and unique tourism offerings can be developed,” says Toefy.

SEE: PICS: Colourful Bo-Kaap featured in NatGeo's spectacular 'Cities' entries for Travel Photographer of the Year Contest

Duminy says that “While we cannot control property sales, we can certainly advise the broader tourism community to engage with the Bo-Kaap Civic and Ratepayers Association to minimise disruptive behaviour on the part of visitors to the area, including sharing information about not interfering with locals, not blocking roads and respecting the privacy of those living in the neighbourhood.”

“We appeal to residents to recognise that tourism as a sector employs many of our friends and families locally, and that the economic impact of tourism is felt across secondary industries as well. We believe that there’s room for harmony in this situation,” adds Duminy.

However, while Bo-Kaap Rise understands that tourism offers job and income opportunities, it says that tourism is “not managed in a sustainable way”.

“The area is so populated by tourists but isn't even well-serviced by the city,” says Dramat, explaining that city authorities need to engage with the community to improve facilities and create jobs in the suburb.

Some tour guides have suggested to Traveller24 that one way in which Bo-Kaap will be able to maintain its cultural heritage is if it gains a Heritage Status. While Toefy tells Traveller24 that the department is “aware of plans by local residents to lobby for heritage status”, Dr Mxolisi Dlamuka of Heritage Western Cape says that it is not aware of an application for World Heritage Status for Bo-Kaap.

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