The Struggles of Tourism

By Joe Burke

Tourism can be a fickle thing, especially in such a fragile country like South Africa. With a terrible history of colonization, the tourism industry must work extremely hard to rebalance how people see and enjoy this country. As a Natural Resource Tourism major, I have seen and experienced many things throughout this country that have showed me where the tourism industry stands, and how some people are fighting to change the old apartheid ways.

I came to South Africa with fellow students from Colorado State University, all with a common goal to understand how communities and conservation play a key role in protecting culture, animals and nature alike. To me, it seems that the tourism industry plays a very important role in all of it. Tourism can either make or break not only a tourist’s experience, but an entire culture itself. In that, I mean if tourism is done in an incorrect way, it can hurt the people who are supposed to be benefiting from it, and leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouths, from the tourist to the communities bordering these parks. Over the past few weeks of exploring South Africa I have talked to many different people in the field of tourism to help gather as much information as I could. Through talking to these people, my eyes have been opened in many ways, some that I could never imagine.

I have talked to tour guides that have seen the best and the worst of the tourism. I have talked to game ranch owners and employees, and I have talked to locals about their view on tourism. I have learned, and seen, that racism is still present in today’s South African tourism industry, and that it does benefit some communities. During it all, I have come to find that many people have the “wrong” idea about tourism.

Many people seem to think tourism is about making money, when it’s truly more than that. Tourism should be more about showcasing culture, preserving nature and all its glory, and all at the same time using profits to benefit communities and landscapes that are struggling; especially in places like South Africa. Far too often have I seen big fancy gates of a game reserve and just a few miles down the road there’s a struggling town where many of its members cannot find jobs. When our group was in one of these fancy game reserves, we were promptly greeted by white employees, then we were met by white managerial staff members. It was only until I truly began to search before I saw black employees, who were working the “back of the house” jobs. After introducing myself and gaining the trust of a couple of the black employees, I found out how truly rigged the system was. I was told everything, from it being nearly impossible for black workers to rank up to the owner and that the chief of the community, who was supposed to be sharing the benefits, was basically stealing the community’s money with the owner. I was also told this was not the only reserve that was doing this, and there are much larger reserves out there holding the same practices.

Though large game reserves have a bad reputation throughout the community, many of the locals that I talked to still had faith in the tourism industry. They believed that if tourism was done correctly, and done by locals, they could benefit not only from the land and animals, but themselves as well. The group I’m with, myself included, got a great taste of this at a community-run nature conservatory.

During apartheid, many communities were moved from the land they had lived on for so many years, but some were able to reclaim the land they once lived on. Lekgalameetse, one of the homelands reclaimed, had been turned into a nature conservation area, run completely by the community. In this area, only community members get hired to do the work. Only community members get to say what happens, and that’s the way it truly should be. The land and animals should not be exploited for profits by wealthy Afrikaans, English, and Rhodesian owners, who care little about either one of the two. Furthermore, these reserves should not be exploiting local community members for low wages, just because there is no other work around. I truly believe that tourism should have a bad reputation in South Africa from what I saw first-hand at this game reserve. I know it is unfair to give all of them a bad reputation off a few days experience, but from what I have gathered through various interviews, it is many to most of the game reserves that are being ran like this. It’s time for the tourism to take a step forward and change how things are being done, or the land, animals and communities are going to ultimately suffer in the end.

Natalie Miller