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Letter to the editor: Let’s unlock the value of township tourism

James Vos, Member of Parliament and Shadow Minister of Tourism, says South Africa needs to unlock the value of township tourism.
On a recent oversight visit to the Maboneng Township Arts Experience in Langa the argument around the importance and beneficial nature of township tourism was made overwhelmingly clear.
Growing at three times the world average, tourism has become one of the most important sectors in South Africa, creating almost a million jobs since 1994 and even overtaking gold exports as an earner of foreign currency. In comparison to mainstream tourism, however, township tourism is still marginal.
Research on tourism in general points to its macro-economic effects such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth and job creation. Research on a micro-economic level indicates, however, that employment is mainly located in the informal sector which is associated with traditionally low-income sector jobs.
The South African Tourism Strategy Paper for 2011 to 2013 suggests that tourism needs to expand in new areas and promote direct participation of historically disadvantaged groups because if tourism is to impact significantly on poverty and unemployment, then tourism must develop in areas beyond the traditional routes and nodes currently used.
Township tourism is a form of tourism that describes guided tours of predominantly international tourists within the townships. A large number of these tours are based in Johannesburg and Cape Town and have become a well-selling product among the tour operators.
Township tours in South Africa emerged after 1994, when townships as places of the political conflicts initially attracted visitors who were interested in South Africa’s democratic transition. Township tour operators bring visitors to the sites of significance to the anti-apartheid movement as well as of historically oppressed communities.
Tour operators now frequently bus in visitors and stop at local craft shops or experience a braai at a popular tavern.  But when tour companies change the focus of their visits to another area, township residents and craft shops sit without income.
Township tourism must however be approached with sensitivity and has in the past been a controversial issue. Tourists might feel uneasy about gawking at other people’s poverty. I guess that stems from the fact that we are dealing with real people’s lives and their daily realities. What one person might see as a ‘shack’ is considered to be a home by another.
The Maboneng Township Arts Experience is a public arts intervention that works with homeowners from different townships around South Africa to create their residences into art galleries. Together with gallery-home owners, we create festivals and permanent art homes called TAGs (Township Art Galleries). There are currently 2 TAGs so far, one in Alexandra Township (Alex TAG) and another in Langa Township (Langa TAG).
This is an amazing project which showcases the benefits of Township tourism when properly put into operation, they are trying to create structures that are sustainable. It is not about a state of apathy and creating poverty tourism. It is all about people that must be able to help themselves in the long run.
Township tourism development plays a vital role in highlighting tourism attractions, with a focus on culture and heritage, and to create unique visitor experiences.
In order to make Township tourism benefit the community and industry, the Tourism Department must make available significantly more training and resources. I am convinced that township tourism can create a variety of economic opportunities for township residents by bringing in and sustaining a portion of the lucrative tourism sector to these communities.
For a long time there’s been a stigma around South Africa’s townships but I submit that township tours, given they are organised in a safe and informative way, can help to overcome stereotypes of township life and people.
Despite the effects in regard to townships perception from outside, effects on the local economy are also significant. Through the growing tourism sector townships have become more accessible and opportunities have opened for black South Africans.
Township tourism provides economic opportunities for local entrepreneurs to enter the ground tour operating business. In this sense I conclude that township tours are helping to overcome the legacy of social and economic exclusion which has for too long characterised township life.
source: James Vos, Member of Parliament and Shadow Minister of Tourism


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