Can Tourism Help South Africa's Poor?

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
March 28, 2005
South Africans voted to end apartheid in 1992. Four years later a
government committee proposed that tourism be used as a development tool
to support the economic, social, and environmental goals of the
government and to empower previously neglected communities.

Those plans are now coming to fruition.

Between 1994 and 2002, the number of foreign tourists grew from 3.7 million to 6.4 million, or 72 percent, reports South Africa's Department of Environmental Affaires and Tourism.

As one of South Africa's fastest-growing industries, tourism has taken the lead over gold. Tourism brings in about 8.3 billion dollars (U.S.) annually, compared to gold's approximately 6.6 billion dollars, said Azar Jammine, a chief economist at Econometrix, a Johannesburg consulting firm. (See pictures of top South African sights.)

"People come here for our sunshine. They come for Cape Town, recognized as one of the world's most beautiful cities," Jammine said. "They come for our wildlife, for our variety of people and cultures and landscapes, and for our political history. They come to the land of Nelson Mandela."

Though far outranked by the manufacturing sector as a foreign-currency earner, tourism is a focal point of the country's strategy to reduce its high unemployment rates. Economists estimate that one job is created for every ten foreign tourists who visit South Africa.

Experts say tourism can be used as a development tool to bring the country's poor into the economic mainstream.

"We have changed the political sphere into a fully democratic dispensation," said Patrick Matlou, a tourism official with the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. "Now we need to change the economic sphere."

"You cannot have 80 percent of your population locked out of the economic mainstream," he continued. "And tourism, with its vast range of activities—including transport, accommodation, and catering—is one of the sectors best suited to draw previously disadvantaged people into the mainstream."

Balancing Concerns

Legislation known as the Black Economic Empowerment Act was passed in 2003. It provides guidelines on how the private and the public sector should set about advancing black people, women, and other groups who were disadvantaged under apartheid.

When the law first went into effect, South Africa's Department of Trade and Industry produced a generic scorecard against which companies could measure themselves.

The Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), an umbrella body established in 1996 to represent the private-sector tourism industry, recently adopted a more specific set of proposals for bringing racial equity into the tourism sector.

TBCSA spokesperson Ntsiki Mpulo said, "The tourism industry has proactively drafted its own scorecard. … Although it is not law, we expect that the industry will embrace the scorecard."

The scorecard awards points to businesses that increase the percentage of black jobholders and black managers and that partner with black-owned businesses, among other measures.

The program establishes specific goals to be met by 2009 and 2014.

"I am excited about the way we are getting the building blocks for sustainable tourism into place," said Ernie Heath, head of the tourism department of the University of Pretoria. "In the past the focus tended to shift between the environmental, the commercial, and the people aspect. We are now taking a more balanced approach."

Tourism and Conservation

Some experts say wildlife conservation has also benefited as appreciation has grown for tourism's role as an economic-growth engine.

"Naturally we want to conserve nature for its own sake," Matlou, the South African government tourism official, said. "But we are one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and because people pay to come and see our wildlife, it makes sense to go just that much further to preserve our natural assets."

Since 1994 the government has designated four new national parks, bringing the total to 20. South Africa has also added substantially more land to existing parks. Almost 20 percent of the country's coastal zone has been designated as protected.

In addition, vast parts of rural South Africa have been converted from grazing and farming lands to wildlife reserves. The country is home to about 9,000 game ranches, covering an area of about 42 million acres (17 million hectares), according to Game Ranch Management, a book edited by J. du P. Bothma, director of the University of Pretoria's Centre for Wildlife Management. The game-ranch acreage is more than double the amount of land formally protected as national and provincial parkland.

Working for Water, a government program that began in 1995, now has 300 projects throughout the country. The initiative aims to enhance ecological integrity, promote sustainable use of natural resources, and invest in the most marginalized sectors of South African society.

Matlou said that in sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa is the "driving force behind transfrontier parks, which allow animals to roam across national boundaries."

"Our tourism product is becoming increasingly diversified, giving it wider appeal while at the same time encouraging entrepreneurship," Heath, of the University of Pretoria, said. "There is no reason why it should not be a trigger for social and economic development. Entailed in the product's development is a vital commitment to developing rural South Africa, where the poorest of our people live."

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