Cape Town inspired to link cultures this World Tourism Day

A recent Newsweek (July 25, 2011) article tells the story of a young girl called Happy Rogers. She was eight at the time of publication and the only American in her kindergarten class at Nanyang Primary School in Singapore.

Far removed from the US diet of TV and teen-aspirant slang, Happy speaks fluent Mandarin and chatters away cheerfully with her classmates. The interesting part is that Happy’s parents have deliberately uprooted their lives to live in Singapore because they want to advantageously prepare their daughter for the future.

With China emerging as a new world power, Happy’s parents think it best she is culturally immersed and linguistically equipped to engage with a new economic and social era, so they are getting a head start – in short, they are raising a “global kid”.

While this might be something of an extreme case, the fact remains there is no better conduit for global diversity than travel.

Today is World Tourism Day, a day on which the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) calls attention to global issues and aspirations around tourism. Despite a rough round for tourism in recent years, it still remains a powerful economic contributor, a major generator of jobs and opportunities, and an agent of change, working as it does to bring travellers to new, unknown things, people and experiences.

In 2011, World Tourism Day reflects on the theme, “Tourism: Linking Cultures”.

Despite the dramatic change in travel behaviour brought on by the global financial crisis and the subsequent changed market conditions, the UNWTO reports that the highest number of international arrivals ever – 940-million – was recorded in 2010. This staggering, constant migration of people is set to grow further. The UNWTO forecasts that there will be 1.6-billion arrivals globally by 2020.

Despite this growth in travel and its integration as a part of life, the pendulum also swings the other way. Just look at xenophobia and the shameful history of racial and cultural intolerance to see that South Africa is but one of many countries haunted by the shadows of bigotry. Across the world, ethnic, political and economic tensions run high as changes to our power structures, financial stability and future security sharpen the thorn of intolerance among the world’s people.

And yet it’s the classic meeting-of-minds-across-barriers movie plotline, the well-known idiom or the sage metaphor “you can’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins”, that suggests we can use travel as a tool to overcome the fear of the unknown. What is needed is a new attitude to travel and, in many respects, this is already evolving.

Calls are being made to table a global code of ethics for tourism, a working manifesto to represent a real shift towards global citizenship through the action of and attitude to travel.

Responsible Tourism is more than just a buzzword; it’s an actual transition taking place as travellers of varying ages and origins ask questions about the impact of their travels and the ecological and sociological health of their would-be tourism destination.

The developed world has moved from mindless consumption to mindful consumption, with people (particularly from wealthy First World countries) increasingly questioning the impact of their travel choices on our fragile world, and many choosing to visit foreign countries to immerse themselves in local experiences, or involve themselves in charitable work in places where their voluntary skills are needed. The gap year that used to be about beer and pizza is now a dedicated “voluntourism” pilgrimage to engage in meaningful community upliftment.

A global code of ethics for tourism could serve as a beacon to guide us through the growth and lightening-fast change that tourism is undergoing. With so much at stake and with so many influencing factors (not to mention the whims and trends of travellers) it’s easy to get swept up in an aggressive approach to marketing and hosting visitors.

We have to be mindful that tourism is just a microcosm of the total picture of humanity and this means that social, ecological and economic sensitivity is required. We cannot afford to lose the authenticity of our culture to short-term economic gain.

A code is a philosophical entity, a starting point. To make it meaningful we have to engage with it, pass it on, implement it and use it to question our own ethical liability. Together with interest groups and government, we have a role to play in assuring that human rights are protected, that the benefits derived from tourism are spread and that travellers and communities are educated on the importance of preserving culture.

It’s important that travellers have the necessary access to information that will allow them to rise above ignorance and fully and respectfully immerse themselves in the culture they are exploring.

In a recent study it was found that only 30% of Americans, often criticised for their travel style, actually hold passports (source: CNN). For a relatively wealthy country with access to flights and technology, this is a staggeringly low figure.

Some have argued that the US is a vast, diverse and interesting country in itself and that this is why its people do not travel. But it has also been pointed out that Americans need to feel safe and sure, and hence worry that their adventures into the unknown will meet with disaster. For these travellers information is key, forewarned is forearmed.

At Cape Town Tourism, we believe this attitude is changing fast. The recent E-Tourism Summit at the CTICC drove home the incredible tool that is social and digital media. Opinion is the new brochure. From Twitter to TripAdvisor to Facebook, social media is immediate, authentic and unforgiving.

It is both an educator and a runaway fire that is often factually incorrect and naïve – but it’s also a culturally curious medium of investigation, a voyeuristic armchair travel expo that inspires adventure and cross-cultural engagement. Just look at some global trends inspired online and you will find things like couch-hopping, a commerce-free, online-driven, exchange programme that sees volunteers offering strangers a holiday stay on their couch.

Generally, new-media-savvy users rise above the clutter of information to think for themselves but, to avert confusion and disinformation, tourism must be at the forefront of social media, actively telling it like it really is, responding to and correcting misperception and encouraging debate and the translation of a dream destination into actual holiday.

Social media is also playing a role in the rise of the tolerant traveller. Famed Facebook traveller Jesse Desjardins cuts through the tourism tinsel and explores the femoral artery of the places he visits in his 72 Hours in … online movies. He represents travellers who want more than the pretty picture, who want to engage with locals of every culture and want to actively share every minute of their experiences in real time.

Many of these people are urbanites. With 2% of the Earth’s surface occupied by cities and 53% of the world’s population living in them, it’s easy to see why urban travellers are the future of travel. Despite this, Cape Town is reaching less than 1% of them. Why?

To date, South Africa’s – and Cape Town’s – marketing collateral has focused very strongly on the natural beauty and wildlife aspects of the country. As global competitiveness in tourism rises, we have to expand our traditional output to include South Africa’s great urban centres and the interesting cultural epicentres of our cities. The 2010 Fifa World Cup™ did an excellent job of introducing this facet of our destination, with plenty of television footage showing organised, safe, cosmopolitan and liveable urban landscapes. The world is intrigued.

Global best practice shows that a compelling integrated marketing and communications campaign, which takes Cape Town to the world, is needed to stand out within the crowded marketplace. With the more compelling brand positioning of “inspiration”, anchored on the platform of liveability and set against the backdrop of Cape Town’s unprecedented natural beauty, the city’s proposition may be elevated to multiple audiences in an array of countries to meet business, investment, academic and leisure tourism objectives.

Such a strategy would elevate the city’s esteem value, and position it as a city of the future, for the benefit of all visitors, irrespective of purpose of visit, building the knowledge base and subsequently the demand for Cape Town. Most importantly, we will be able to stimulate the economy and contribute to sustainable jobs within the sector, the only real measure of success.

Cape Town Tourism has developed a global tourism marketing strategy and campaign, which will be launched locally at our Annual General Meeting on October 17, 2011.

Change should not merely be about survival but rather thriving. It is easy to over-obsess about the future and, while it is important to keep one eye on the horizon to scout for signs of change, our first priority remains to deliver what is needed now.

Not only are we a Cape Town of mountains, sea and fynbos, we are also a creative, innovative, design-driven city full of diverse, fascinating people. Cape Town’s real beauty can be found within the many complex, interesting layers of our city, her cultures, her people and the stories that shaped and continue to shape us.

In fact, Cape Town truly represents this year’s World Tourism Day theme, “Tourism: Linking Culture”. We may not have perfected tolerance but we do have an intricate history of cultural interconnectedness. The mere sounds of the city, from the bass beat of the taxis and the muezzin of the Mosque to the Noon Gun and the ringing of church bells, Cape Town is a symphony of life influenced by our many cultures, religions and persuasions. European, Middle Eastern and African people have all been drawn to this tip of Africa, where they are inspired by the meeting of influences found here.

Cape Town’s Tourism Day Celebrations are happening today, with music and dancing at the My Cape Town Event at the Cape Town Station forecourt, and at Lookout Hill in Khayelitsha, with a showcase of tourism offerings and a school competition.

In the last three years, Cape Town Tourism has dedicated the month of September to asking Capetonians to be tourists in their own city. Our campaign, called My Cape Town, calls on citizens to go out and see their city anew. It is quite commonplace for Capetonians to confess they have never been on the Table Mountain Cableway or that they have not set foot on Robben Island. Many of us have never explored the Company’s Garden or been to the National History Museum, deferring instead to our same old round of malls, friends and movies.

If tourism is to link cultures and pave the way to peace and tolerance, what better starting point than in our own backyards. Tourism Month may be drawing to a close, but it’s not too late to adopt a new outlook, take a new route to work, visit a new museum in your lunchtime, people-watch from a coffee shop in Long Street, take the kids on a train ride to Simon’s Town or spend a blissful Sunday afternoon beneath the trees in Kirstenbosch. At the end of the day this is your Cape Town; open your mind to your city and your people, you have much to be inspired by.

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