13 May 2013

It is time for our visitors to meet South Africa

South Africa is known the world over for our incredible wildlife and for our awe-inspiring adventure tourism offering, but our unique heritage and culture doesn’t always give us the recognition it should. It’s time to change that, writes South African Tourism Chief Executive Officer, Thulani Nzima.

Thulani Nzima, CEO South African Tourism Thulani Nzima, CEO South African Tourism

“The United Nations World Tourism Organisation estimates that heritage and cultural tourism accounts for 40% of international tourism, making it key to the long term sustainability of our industry.” Thulani Nzima, CEO South African Tourism

When it comes to Big Five game viewing or an action-packed adventure holiday, the South African tourism industry has certainly succeeded in setting itself apart as a destination of choice. But when it comes to a destination boasting heritage and culture the world thinks India, Peru, Italy, China, Egypt, Greece or Thailand, not South Africa. This is surprising for a country so diverse that we have eleven official languages, a history so complex and alive that we are still trying to piece it together and a heritage so rich that we boast eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation estimates that heritage and cultural tourism accounts for 40% of international tourism, making it key to the long term sustainability of our industry. This does not mean that we will shift our focus from wildlife and adventure. Our leadership in these spaces continues to fuel the success of our tourism sector, which boasted a 10.2% growth in tourist numbers in 2012, more than twice the global average of 4%. But it is time to realise that heritage and culture are key pull factors for today’s traveler who doesn’t just want to see a destination, but wants to listen to it, taste it, hear it and touch it too. 

It’s up to us, the tourism industry, to give our visitors this opportunity. As a country with a divided past we are often not as familiar with our country’s many different cultures and its rich heritage as we would like to be. As a result we have tended to stick to what we know – the “safety” of our natural wonders, our scenic beauty and amazing fauna and flora, often overlooking our most incredible asset, our people, each with their own incredible story to tell. It is time to invite the world to meet South Africa and we brought our country’s heritage and culture tourism offering into the mainstream of the tourism economy at the Tourism INDABA this year.

Today’s traveler is desperate to be part of and to understand the culture of the destination they visit. Because you can now buy a pashmina almost anywhere in the world, people don’t travel to Nepal to buy them, but they travel so that when they wear their beautiful pashmina they can tell the story of the man they had a cup of tea with in a backstreet shop in Kathmandu whose family has been making these fine shawls for generations. They don’t just want to watch the Carnival on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, because their neighbour can get almost as good a taste of it watching it on his high definition television. No, they travel to Brazil to march with a samba school.

We have to keep this thirst for culture and heritage in mind when we welcome visitors to South Africa. Sure, people are blown away by the incredible seafood they can eat in Cape Town’s many world-class restaurants, but the story they want to go home and tell is that of the best fish they ever ate off the braai on the beach in Hout Bay. That’s because they bought that fish straight off the boat in the harbour from a fisherman who taught them about vlekking and shared with them his family’s generations-old recipe of braai-ing snoek with apricot jam.

For many Vilakazi street, the only street in the world to be home to two Nobel prize winners, is a must-see attraction. But the story visitors want to share with their friends is not what the inside of Nelson Mandela’s house looks like, but of the afternoon they got to cycle the streets of this living, breathing, vibrant township that changed the course of this country’s history. They will tell their friends how they found themselves at the back of someone’s house, sitting on beer crates with a quart of Black Label watching Orlando Pirates take on their rivals Kaizer Chiefs with a garage full of new friends.

These are the experiences we have to give our travelers and the only way we are going to give it to them is to introduce them to the people who make South Africa the place that it is. This is the focus of Indaba this year – bringing our culture and heritage to life.

For the first time ever Indaba featured a Heritage and Culture Pavilion where you can interact first hand with some of the tourism products and people that are offering the kind of experience that deepens South Africa’s culture and heritage tourism offering.

It gave exposure to the likes of Andulela Tours, one of the many tour operators featured at the Pavilion. Andulela transforms your experience of Cape Town’s Bo-Kaap district from one where you simply walk the cobbled streets, breath in the spicy aromas and take a couple of snaps of the multi-coloured houses to one where you are intimately drawn into the life of the people that live there. With the opportunity to actually shop for the ingredients that make up a typical Cape Malay curry and then learn how to cook it in a Bo-Kaap family home, you are given a unique insight into the food, history and religion of this special area. It is exactly this kind of experience that we need to include in our tourism offering if we really want to set South Africa apart as a destination.

The Heritage and Culture Pavilion was also designed to give those marketing our destination the inspiration to present our heritage and culture offering in a modern, sophisticated and different way. For example, visitors will get the opportunity to see how top South African designers, the likes of Marianne Fassler, Thula Sindi, David Tlale and Nkhensani Nkosi, have used our eight World Heritage sites as their inspiration for garments, on display at the Pavillion.

We also continued with our speed marketing workshops at INDABA this year, a further opportunity for product owners and buyers to interact as together we seek to broaden the South African heritage and culture experience.

For us in the tourism business, our greatest asset is our people, and we’re looking to put them front and centre as we market this beautiful destination around the world.