The impact of the Dewani incident on local tourism

In the last weeks and days (and especially in the light of new speculations and revelations surfacing almost hourly), I have been asked by national and international media as well as members of our tourism industry to comment on the effect of the Dewani tragedy on tourism in Cape Town.

Whilst the furore surrounding the Dewani case has not resulted in cancelled trips to Cape Town, it saddens me to say that we have received numerous reports of cancellations of cultural and township tours in our city. An incident like this also further entrenches stigmas and negative perceptions not just of the world, but also within our own city towards what is classified as townships. This is deeply affecting those in the community that look to tourism to support their livelihoods.

In recent years township tourism has become crucial in the lives of many locals as well as for the new wave of responsible travellers looking for genuine cultural and interactive experiences.

One of the most significant trends in tourism globally is the yearning for “barefoot or real authenticity”. People want to get off the bus, immerse themselves into the hearts and homes of local communities – understand and feel what it is like to walk the streets of Cape Town. Tourists no longer want to be passive observers but choose to be active participants.

With a growing number of visitors demanding more meaningful and responsible experiences, people want to see their holidays making a positive difference. Discovery and escapism have become as important as voluntourism and personal retreat. South Africa is well placed to take advantage of this trend within the increasingly competitive tourism market.

A township tour was included in 80% of the itineraries of the more than 1000 international media trips hosted by Cape Town Tourism during 2009 and 2010 and was often singled out as the highlight amongst the more well-known and ‘touristy’ experiences. In Cape Town, tours are available in most communities like Langa, Gugulethu, Khayelitsha, Kayamandi, Lwandle and Imizamo Yethu where experienced local operators have worked with the resident communities to establish fascinating and safe perspectives of everyday life. Interactive and socially attentive, these tours have the community’s buy-in.

Tour operators are very involved in educating residents about the benefits of tourism and do an immense amount of social responsibility work. For many young township dwellers, this exposure to the tourism industry whets their appetite for entry into the profession. For others, such as crafters, restaurateurs and musicians, the tours are a lifeline to a livelihood.  Cape Town Tourism is working with industry role-players and international partners to ensure that stability returns to the township tourism sector. A strong partnership between communities, tourism and local government remain important as we work together to deal with the many challenges ahead.

Reputation is a very fragile commodity, stigmas are deeply entrenched and safety and security remain the biggest reason why people choose not to visit our country.  New developments in the Dewani tragedy indicate that it might not have been a case of “being in the wrong place at the wrong time”. The nation shared a sigh of relief hoping for a quick recovery from this reputational blow so that we can go on with our lives. Life will return to “normal” for most of us and we will all continue to work hard at building Cape Town’s tourism economy. But for many, incidents like these have much more serious consequences. Organised crime is certainly no better for our reputation, or the lives of ordinary citizens, than opportunistic crime. Solving our crime problems in whichever guise has to remain a top priority.

Our message will remain consistent: Do not discriminate against township tourism, support responsible, legal and qualified businesses. Missing out on this slice of life, is to miss a major part of the Cape Town story and experience.

I do believe that it is time for us to debate the way we have labelled cultural experiences within previously disadvantaged areas as “township tours”, boxing it conveniently into a stereotypical, and often spectator-driven, experience that is not sustainable or to the long term benefit of communities that desperately rely on tourism for their survival.

Cape Town is many things to many people, perhaps led by the fact that it offers so much. We are as much a nature-lover’s paradise as we are a gourmet destination. We are all about beaches but we are also an interesting example of a modern Pan-African city and a rich cultural melting pot. Cape Town tells a tale of two cities, a beautiful and favourite travel destination boasting a great quality of life, juxtaposed with social problems and poverty that are directly related to our colourful but troubled past.

Our mixed bag of heritage and history weaves a complex tapestry through our lifeblood.

To be a great place to visit, Cape Town must first and foremost be a great place to live, for the majority of citizens. This has to be our biggest goal. Solutions to our problems have to be found collectively. Capetonians, like people the world over, want quality of life and place and, whilst many among us are closer to achieving this, we can still be better at extending this promise to our own people. We can improve on our confidence and kindness; we can open our hearts to our communities and those who have not. We can, increasingly, walk the streets of our city and our neighbourhoods, and our public transport infrastructure is now a priority. We can believe in and feed off our own vibrancy, academic achievement and creativity. We can be proud to be Capetonian.

Let us start a conversation about the future of community and cultural tourism that tells our full story, warts and all, to a world that is tired of the smooth, generic perfect destinations. Let us be inspired and inspire the world with the many examples of hope and success born out of struggle and hardship.

As always, I welcome your feedback and input. You are welcome to share your thoughts with me on this and other tourism issues by emailing

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