Every city and country in the world has its list of culturally relevant must-visit places. It's the Top 10 Things To Do here, the Top 25 Places To Visit there, and so on. In Beijing, you can't miss the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. In Cologne, there’s the Gothic Catholic Cathedral. In London, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. In Paris, you have to see the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. In New York, don't miss the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. When in Rome, you'll obviously go to the Colosseum and the Pantheon, at the Vatican, you'll see the Sistine Chapel. These are but a few; the list is endless.
And then there is modern life within those cities, countries and cultures. In countries with a well-developed tourism industry, there is great variety born out of the freedom to craft experiences and realities that honour and respect the past, while presenting the present and future in ways that contextualise the evolution of a culture. In Africa, this is a journey that we are on, to varying degrees of success.
In Dakar, Senegal, for instance, the Island of Gorée is a must-visit. A short ferry ride from the main harbour runs every 30 minutes. It is the location of the infamous House of Slaves in which slaves – men, women and children – were kept during the Atlantic slave trade period. The House now serves as a museum and a reminder of the evil that men (and women) do and yet, the island is also a Dakar district, has its own mayor and is home to one of Senegal’s top schools, the Mariama Bâ Boarding School for girls. It is named after Senegalese author and feminist Mariama Bâ, and was established by Leopold Sedar Senghor, Senegal’s first president, in 1977.
Every city and country in the world has its list of culturally relevant must-visit places. It's the Top 10 Things To Do here, the Top 25 Places To Visit there, and so on.
When I took the ferry to and from the island, there were more people travelling to and from work than there were tourists. There is an interesting juxtaposition between the past and the present on the Island, which can be confusing to make sense of when you are visiting. This is where the importance of guides with that understanding comes in; to help the traveller navigate these seemingly disparate realities.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Basotho Cultural Village at the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in South Africa, which is firmly rooted in giving insight into the past, pre and post the arrival of Europeans. The tour involves interactions with the people one would have come across in a village during those times as well as clothing, herbs, architecture, food and life. It is an important journey to take in terms of changing the narrative around Africans prior to colonisation, but the responsibility lies in the visitor to bring that context into the present.
With this complex relationship between past and present from a tourism perspective, there is a drive across the world to create travel experiences that are both culturally relevant and responsible in terms of how tourists interact with the spaces they visit, particularly continentally. It is with this in mind that a number of organisations have evolved how and why they run tours.
Established by Siphesihle Penny Ndlela in 2013 initially as a faith-based travel operator, Soul Traveller tours are based on the six colours of the South African flag and are themed separately. Tours typically last five days and four nights, inclusive of meals, with the content of each themed tour changing regularly to make allowance for the diverse interests of the local traveller. The company also specialises in half-day and full-day immersive experiences, which are curated with a specific theme or interest group in mind.
For example, its Red Urban Culture and Local Cuisine tour incorporates a “neighbourhood food tour” that explores the diverse influences in South African cuisine as well as delving into contemporary urban spaces. On the other hand, the White Heritage tour takes you through the country’s history with both the places and the people who have contributed to shaping the South Africa we live in today.
With an emphasis on the local traveller, Ndlela says, “We create immersive experiences that allow the traveller to identify with that particular culture as something that has shaped our lives and has had a significant impact at some stage. South Africans cannot be defined by any one culture, which makes travelling in this country so unique. Each South African identity has been touched and shaped by a number of the local cultures and, by immersing the traveller in that particular culture, you soon identify with it and realise you are more South African and local than you ever thought possible.”
What sets Soul Traveller apart is the uniqueness of the bespoke group tours and how these are curated to ensure that the wants, needs and desires of the travellers are met. One size does not fit all. Ndlela says the tours are rooted in "cultural tourism" which she defines as “the consumption of South Africa’s diverse cultures through all five senses. It’s not good enough to view a culture from behind the window on a bus; you need to taste it, touch it, hear its sound and inhale it and let it find its way into your soul, where it will leave a lasting memory, and that insatiable desire to go back for more.”
Soul Traveller is developing additional tours aimed at youth, pink travel and city escapes, and is currently offering a tour to the Essence Festival in New Orleans.
Uthando South Africa
Uthando SA is unique in that it is a non-profit organisation born out of founder James Fernie’s activism and life philosophy based on the desire to make sense of the world and to do his bit to make the world a better place. Its focus is on assisting community development projects, so it has a range of fundraising initiatives including publishing books and holding benefit concerts. but the organisation also offers tours.
Fernie says, “The idea behind the tours was really to make the business model sustainable in that we are generating our own income. We’re not relying on donations to cover the overheads of the business. We are working as guides, taking people to go and visit a very broad spectrum of community projects thereby showcasing these remarkable people doing remarkable things. We are not a township tour. It’s more about showcasing interesting people.”
Uthando recognises the natural link between tourism and community development projects by taking people to experience projects in a productive and respectful way, while making a financial contribution too. Uthando’s tours are as diverse as the community projects it assists. For example, it could be visiting the amazing vegetable gardens of Abalimi Bezekhaya; visiting the Early Childhood Learning centres they have helped fundraise to build; planting trees with Greenpop; visiting and spending time with seniors; visiting Up For All, a programme run by ex-prisoners to upskill unemployed youth in computer programming and coding; or playing soccer with the Greater Commissions United Academy, a soccer academy started 17 years ago by ex-gangster Mario van Niekerk, an ex-member of the Americans Gang.
Fernie adds, “Many people comment on how European Cape Town is. Many tourists will only see black people who are cleaning their rooms or serving them at a restaurant. When they come on a tour with us, they can sit down with an elderly black person and learn from them. Learn about their sense, their spirit of Ubuntu, and how kind they are. People are often worried about visiting the township being voyeuristic or poverty tourism. When they finish, they realise that it was really an opportunity to meet local people in a way that levels the playing fields and also is beneficial because we are supporting all of these community projects.”
While there is a desire for more local people to experience Uthando’s tours, the majority are wealthy Americans, British and Europeans who are socially aware and want to visit the townships in a manner that is sensitive to the people there. Uthando works with tour operators, hotels and other stakeholders in the industry. It has a code of conduct for its guests to ensure that there is no invasion of privacy. It is a member of Fair Trade.
Justin Francis started Responsible Travel in 2001 to bring about change in the tourism industry, following a nine-month trip across the continent which included visits to Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda, Malawi and Uganda, among others. The organisation positions itself as “an activist travel company. Our mission is to make the tourism industry a more caring place. Travellers are craving real and authentic experiences. How do you get this? In our view treating local people very well, so they see real benefits from tourism, means they are more likely to offer you this - access to their lives, culture and heritage. Responsible tourism is a more enjoyable way to travel - our 10 000+ customer reviews evidence this too. It will grow fast for this reason - we are growing at +30% or more a year.”
It works with 450 specialist tour companies across the world. The tour companies are vetted by Responsible Travel and it takes feedback from travellers into consideration when listing tours, to ensure that the tours reflect its ethos. When screening tour operators, it takes into consideration factors such as: including a company-wide responsible tourism policy, a commitment to transparency, being open to feedback from customers as well as the range of NGOs the operators work with and a detailed description of how each trip adheres to the responsible tourism mandate. If Responsible Travel feels the trip or operator does not meet its criteria, it will not work with the operator. It also works with local tourism entrepreneurs for real insight into the experiences.
It provides more than 5 000 tours globally. On the continent, trips include: an Ivory Coast small group tour, where you visit villages of the Baule people, experience traditional iron metallurgy and watch a dance performance by initiated young men; a tailor-made Ethiopian tour to Dorze villages, Mursi and Hamer tribes and the Yabelo Wildlife Sanctuary; and a Ghana, Togo and Benin tour where you experience voodoo ceremonies, traditional ceremonies and other rituals practised in the three countries.
For Responsible Travel, “cultural tourism means respecting the culture and the way of life of the people who live in the place that you are visiting. Through responsible tourism we believe we can benefit communities and help conserve environments. Done well, tourism can provide livelihoods and show local people why their culture and environment are well worth protecting and celebrating. For us as travellers, the benefits are endless – more authentic and enjoyable experiences and the ability to understand other ways of life.”