Mariette du Toit-Helmbold of Cape Town Tourism

“As tourism grows to join the ranks of the world’s major commercial industries, so do the questions around the impact this industry has on our fragile world and its people. Tourism can do as much or not more harm than good if not developed and managed responsibly. The world is rife with examples.

It is a fact that much of what we spend even in developing countries, still lands back in the pocket of the Western World with little benefit to the local communities we are actually visiting. International tourism remains dominated by a few large corporations that control flights, accommodation and often what the visitor consumes, sees and purchases.

But the tourism landscape is changing. Travellers are more and more mindful of the impact their travels have on the lands they visit in the short – and the long term. In the “Good Alternative Travel Guide” (Tourism Concern) they quote Rolf Wesche and Andy Drum from Defending our Rainforest: “The quest of the responsible traveller is to learn, to be understanding, to share, to contribute – rather than to act as a consumer who seeks maximum gratification at a minimum expense.”

I was invited to participate as guest speaker at the 2011 Conference on Planning and Developing Community Based Rural Tourism held in the Philippines from 12 – 14 January 2011. Attended by more than 700 delegates from Asia, mostly from the Philippines, the conference targeted tourism leaders, prominent businesses and decision makers in government.

The Philippines, like South Africa, has an incredible natural beauty and interesting cultural mix. Community based tourism like eco-tourism has taken off with developers descending upon pristine beaches and forests to set up new tourism ventures, all dubbed as community based and eco-tourism experiences. There are few restrictions, legislation is outdated and not implemented, limited environmental impact studies are undertaken and there is not much evidence of economic benefits trickling down to grass root communities with many still blindsided by the promise of immediate financial gain. But many citizens, stakeholders and visitors are starting to question traditional tourism development and practices, placing pressure on government and the industry to change and embrace a more responsible approach to tourism development.

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.

As developing countries, we have an opportunity to lay the right foundation and Cape Town is well placed to take advantage of this trend within the growing competitive tourism market. The recognition and support from local and national government for responsible tourism places us at an advantage to many other developing destinations where there is still no real strategies, legislation or support in place.

For a city like Cape Town it is imperative that responsible tourism be the backbone of our industry and its future development.

Cape Town’s story is not a pretty one, but it is real. In a world where the story has become the unique selling point, rather than the product, and where people are yearning to get off the bus and immerse themselves into the hearts and homes of people in places with rough edges, we have an opportunity to shape a new tourism destiny for Cape Town.

Celebrated as one of the top leisure tourism cities in the world renowned for its natural beauty, sophisticated African flare, cosmopolitan lifestyle and world-class tourism infrastructure, Cape Town has another side – less glamorous and more and more difficult to disguise.

Prof. Edgar Pieterse from the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town says that the challenge Cape Town faces is not merely the fact that the working classes and poor are on the periphery of the city. The more fundamental challenge is the lack of real social engagement across class and cultural divides between Capetonians (a legacy of Apartheid). He talks further about making a connection on the basis of shared interests and says: “It is only through meaningful face-to-face, ordinary encounters that the demons of racism and prejudice can be expunged.”

Africa’s first ever World Cup has inspired the world and changed the world’s perception of our country, and city, forever. For a moment the world and ourselves forgot the negative legacy of our past, the crime and the serious social problems so deeply imbedded within our society. We were again the united Rainbow Nation and the “real winners of the World Cup”.

As we pat ourselves on the back for our big and very successful year, the glory days of the 2010 World Cup are fading into memory.

Certainly, in a world defined by the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ mentality, Cape Town’s window of opportunity is already closing and to many people, promises of prosperity ring hollow. Fencing in our natural assets to protect it from the social problems creeping into our perfect Cape Town is not a solution.

To be a great place to visit, we must first and foremost be a great place to live…the reality is that for most, Cape Town is not yet a great place to live. This has to be our biggest goal. Tourism, and in particular Responsible Tourism, can be a vehicle of real economic growth and social transformation.

We will not be able to build a sustainable and responsible destination without our citizens. As Baba Dioum says, “At the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will only understand what we are taught.”

It is time to redefine Cape Town beyond the well-known beautiful stereotypes. It is time to involve all the people of Cape Town to tell our full story, warts and all. As the Tourism Sector we must commit ourselves to a sector that is more accessible, more relevant and more beneficial to all our people.

Cecil Rajendra a human rights activist from Malaysia said: “The raw material of the tourist industry is the flesh and blood of people and their cultures.” The destinations we visit when on holiday are people’s homes; they are not merely postcard pictures.

Cape Town won the ‘Best Destination’ category of the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards on World Responsible Tourism Day in 2009 and there are many success stories to celebrate and share with the world, but our journey has only started. Let us start a conversation about a more responsible and real tourism future for our city that will make Cape Town a better place to live and a much more meaningful place to visit.”


Mariette du Toit-Helmbod
CEO, Cape Town Tourism

One thought on “Mariette du Toit-Helmbold of Cape Town Tourism

  1. Very well stated!

    It’s been noted that the majority of international tourists, and a fair number of domestic tourists feel the desire to somehow share their skills with ‘less fortunate’people in the areas they visit through community out-reach programmes and upliftment projects. You can see this in Lesotho – see Malealea Lodge, Semonkong Lodge and St James Lodge for example.

    It’s easier for tour operators to package community experiences than it is for self-drive tourists therefore I feel government needs to step in and assist to finance the following:

    1. Seminars in each community teaching the people the basics of tourism, ie Who are tourists? What are they looking for? How do they need to be treated? What are they afraid of? How can we benefit from them? What do we need to do in order to create a win-win relationship with them?

    2. Building suitable infrastructure (in line with traditional architecture / design as far as possible) with refreshment / restaurant of sorts, curio / art shops, market area, traditional doctor / Sangoma perhaps, tour kiosk (offering guided tours into the housing area with cultural displays, traditional food & drink sampling, and history of the community), and a clean toilet.
    It must be noted that some tourists are terrified to venture deep into strange villages as it really puts them out of their comfort zone and they’re unable to cope with strangers popping their heads into the vehicle windows and begging for sweets & money. Therefore I feel there needs to be infrastructure in place for guided visits into these villages and that the communities should understand the fears of these tourists and know the right way to deal with them.

    3. Work with community leaders to set up ongoing projects like Orphan / homeless support, Education Centre (Technology / Science), Home-Based Care Project, Community vegetable gardens, Art from waste (Recycling projects). If these projects are sent in the itinerary folders to tourists booked on guided tours / group tours, along with a pamphlet on how they can contribute, you’ll find out how many people are almost desperate to make their mark and assist in some way.

    4. Adequate Sign posting and accurate information in brochures and on the internet is also essential. Too many people venture off on a long-awaited and well researched holiday only to find out later that they missed half the attractions on offer as the info they had was not accurate or the sign posting wasn’t in place.

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