There is no doubt that South Africa has a rich cultural heritage with many experiences for travellers, but operators need to ensure that it is authentic and marketed properly if it is to elevate the country’s image as one of the most diverse culture and heritage tourism destinations in the world.
“The country needs to offer truly authentic cultural and heritage tourism. Tourists should not just feel like they are watching a cultural display – they actually need to feel part of it by being guided by authentic storytellers that take them through the cultural experience. I also think that, in many of our country’s marketing campaigns, we still fall short of colouring the full picture of what South Africa really is,” Maria Malepa, owner of well-known tour operator, Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, told Tourism Update.
Paul Zille, Owner of Origin Safaris Africa, a specialist tour operator that focuses exclusively on archaeology safaris, added that the country’s marketing needed to go beyond the generic offer of “reconstructed cultural villages and related products which are one-dimensional and barely distinguishable from one another”.
“South Africa’s marketing agencies need to incentivise innovation and excitement in the way different cultural offerings are defined and presented, and ensure that real people and local partnerships are given platforms for expression within enabling frameworks that tourism marketing experts can sell,” said Zille.
“Our marketing agencies at national, provincial and local level need to look beyond the statutory marketing and promotion players for fresh ideas and products, and adopt a more open and inclusive approach to the identification, packaging and presentation of our cultural and heritage products. They need to look beyond their traditional partners and products, and behave like creative and innovative cultural and heritage ‘market facilitators’.”
For culture and heritage tourism establishments, it is important to continuously elevate unique products and services to ensure their authenticity carries on in the future.
Lebo's Soweto Backpackers – even though its famous bicycle tours remain its most popular – has elevated its offerings throughout the years by introducing tuk-tuk tours and walking tours.
More recently, the tour operator added cooking tours where travellers can cook traditional meals with its chefs, as well as a cultural heritage history storytelling experience in the evenings where local Soweto residents tell their personal stories about life in Soweto.
This was born out of their philosophy of always trying to elevate experiences for visitors to immerse themselves in Soweto’s cultural heritage.
“We always try to keep on going beyond and keep on being a pioneer of these types of cultural heritage experiences,” said Malepa.
She referred to her late husband, Lebo Malepa, who started the business around 20 years ago, as a pioneer in the country’s cultural heritage tours.
“He was a pioneer at that time when he started the first township-based backpackers’ lodge and the first black-owned bicycle tours in the country – people thought he was crazy. And now it is much more common with other tour operators, who were inspired by Lebo, starting similar products. We constantly see ourselves as offering alternative experiences,” Malepa said.
Regarding its marketing, Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers leans heavily on international markets such as the Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium, Scandinavia, the UK, and North America. But, following the travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it also aims to provide more valuable experiences for domestic travellers who want to learn more about Soweto’s unique heritage.
On an average week, the tour operator receives around 300 bookings, which can sometimes reach 500 bookings.
Origin Safaris Africa, recently elevated its offerings when it was granted guiding rights to South Africa’s ‘best-kept archaeological secret’ – the Thulemala Royal Citadel.
The tour operator will launch a guided tour to the archaeological stone wall site, dating from 1250-1700AD in the Pafuri region of the Kruger National Park, from November 10-13.
“We intend to elevate its profile as a must-see culture and heritage destination slap-bang in the middle of the most biodiverse part of the Kruger,” said Zille.
Call to join SA’s Heritage Association
Kathy Munro, Chairperson of the Heritage Association of South Africa (HASA), told Tourism Update that it encouraged tourism bodies to join the association.
HASA is the voice of conservation bodies from around the country dedicated to conserving the national estate, such as architecture, archaeology and geology. The federation of local bodies currently has only 25 associate members.
“I would like to see more tourism associations join, because the value is that they can learn from heritage about the country or a particular place, which they can in turn use to sell tours. Aside from learning more about the country’s heritage, benefits would be that they broaden their network. They will also see value in promoting their tours because they are adding that heritage dimension,” said Munro.