For richer or poorer?

Getting Fair Trade tourism right


It’s been called “poverty porn” and “voyeurism” and has become something of a controversial issue… The big question is whether township tourism is really benefitting the poor communities it is supposed to be helping, and if not, why not?

It’s all about R.E.S.P.E.C.T

“I think every place in the world should be a tourist attraction. Sandton City has its selling points, just as Alexandra Township does. I don’t think that tourists should be avoiding destinations simply because visiting that place could be perceived as poverty tourism. To me that defeats the purpose of travel. Just go, and be respectful.”

Blogger and photographer Heather Mason’s response to the question of how to navigate the sometimes contested and ethically sensitive topic of township tourism is refreshingly straight forward. People travel because they want to experience a destination in all its complexity. In South Africa, that includes confronting the huge inequalities that exist in our society.

While her answer is simple, it also suggests a shift in language and attitude towards responsible tourism in South Africa that involves looking at assets in communities, not poverty.

“The real key is to go into every travel experience with an open mind, engage with the community in whatever way works best, and to be respectful in the way we interact and talk or write about the experience,” she suggests.

Considering how to include people in marginalised communities in tourism is crucial and this is where operators can make a real impact, suggested Paul Miedema, a leader in the field of Fair Trade Tourism, who sadly died in early 2017. His business, Calabash Tours, established Paul as a pioneer in the field of so-called “pro-poor” tourism. He was interviewed for this article shortly before his death.

“It’s important to allow communities to help shape the ethos and the product. Operators need to constantly be asking ‘how we can do this in a beneficial way? Are we welcome?’” Paul suggested. “And if you are making money out of townships, you have to put money back.”

Even when tour operators get their approach right, there are inherent tensions in marrying tourism and development. “People do want us to always do something more,” says Prince Nkuna, a township tour guide in Sigagula Village in Mpumalanga. Born and raised in the village, he’s spent two years introducing the concept of the tours to his community. “There are very few jobs here. Kids who are still at school are asking how they can learn to do my job. I think it’s because they see something important and something beautiful happening.”

“We all think tourism is the biggest positive for SA,” says Sarah Bergs, who works with Prince. “Our area is flooded with luxury lodges, but tourism isn’t locally relevant for people because the money doesn’t come home,” she says.

Keeping it real…

Making tourism relevant creates a gap for local entrepreneurs, but accessing the market is hard. People like Prince often want to start businesses themselves but lack both the skills and money to do so. For now, Prince is satisfied that he’s learning about tourism and that seven previously unemployed people in his community earn a wage and young people are starting to see a future for themselves in tourism.

The need to make money is a key motivator in township tourism. As the national responsible tourism strategy reflects though, it’s still hard for small entrepreneurs to access funds, skills and markets for tourism products and services. As a result, the pace of transformation in this sector is slow - “I still benefit from my white privilege,” Paul noted more than two decades after he started taking tourists into townships. Only a small percentage of South Africa’s annual tourism revenue finds its way into South Africa’s poorest homes.

“I don’t think we’re doing well in terms of inclusive tourism and including marginal economies,” said Paul , adding that “I would like to see the official white paper on pro-poor tourism move from a language and policy to an action”. Rather than narrowly looking at township or community-based tourism products, inclusive tourism should operate throughout the industry’s supply chain, involving local suppliers, SMMEs and service providers in all aspects of the sector.

Paul believed that for a pro-poor tourism product to really be successful, people also need to be motivated by something other than pure profit.

“Our agenda has always been to use tourism to drive social justice. Our initial thought wasn’t about the money we could make. We started operating at a time of high social agency. We were thinking about labour practices and consent in communities and realised that visitors to South Africa needed a narrative to allow them to understand our society,” he explained.

Intuitively, he was aware that one way to do this in the travel sector was to take people into communities they wouldn’t have accessed during apartheid. “On tours we started to explain how apartheid used urban planning to separate people. Visitors were able to understand what they were seeing.” At the time, this was a radical departure from ‘conventional’ tourism.

“Rather than narrowly looking at township or community-based tourism products, inclusive tourism should operate throughout the industry’s supply chain, involving local suppliers, SMMEs and service providers in all aspects of the sector.” – Paul Miedema, Calabash Tours

Authentic, to a point…

Today, township tourism often forms part of a typical South African itinerary. The narrative has changed, but even savvy travelers still need context. “The latest shift in dialogue with operators is about authenticity – but not too much authenticity!” noted Paul. Some operators aren’t happy with the stories coming out of the townships today. “Those wonderful uplifting stories are being replaced by less positive ones. There are burning tyre marks in almost every township on the Eastern Cape. We can’t ignore that,” he noted.

Compromising on the truth isn’t an option. “Our sector needs to wake up to the fact that tours don’t have to be high gloss – some stories are hard. They are real. Airbrushing reality doesn’t do our people or our country justice. We can be optimistic, but also realistic. It’s not for us to decide on other people’s stories.”

While the sector has boomed in the last two decades, with people lauding its transformative potential, concerns remain about how to conduct these tours in an ethical way, while ensuring economic and social benefits leave people richer for the exchange.

“Pro-poor tourism is about tourism that benefits poor communities, in terms of employment, infrastructure, community incomes, capacity building, sourcing and linkages,” says lauded travel activist and blogger Merushka Govender.

“I see poverty porn as the type of township or rural tourism where people sit on a tour bus or visit poor communities with a sense of voyeurism, taking photos without engaging with people in the community. It doesn’t necessarily empower communities on their own terms and sees poor communities through a “white saviour” complex. These sort of tours still happen sadly.”

It’s exactly these kinds of tours that rile academics and communities, who question the inherent bias in ‘pro-poor’ or township tourism and suggest these tours promote negative stereotypes. In 2015, Andiswa Mkosi, Onele Liwani and Sabelo Mkhabela, three creatives from youth-run media channel filmed a ‘reverse’ township tour; following people in the suburbs to make a point about the kinds of invasive tours that disrespect people’s privacy and objectify them. The video went viral. Watch it

The final word goes to township tour guide Prince - “Yes, we don’t have money,” he says. “But what visitors to townships need to remember is that this doesn’t make us poor.”

Note: Article produced before Paul Miedema of Calabash Tours passed on.

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