A Long Road Ahead

South Africa nurtures an emerging travel industry

By: R. Scott Macintosh

The heart of the Zulu nation is steeped in history.

Modest thatched huts along the road into Zululand follow a tribal design. Women paint their faces with red and white clay according to their marital status.

On the top of the highest hill overlooking the eMakhosini Valley two young Zulu women wait in the sun for tourists.

Jabu Gabela and Londewe Ncanana display seven tall horns surrounding a large bronze pot. The horns, they say, depict a culture that grew in harmony with nature. The pot contains the soul of the Zulu nation.

When guests arrive, the women perform a traditional Zulu dance, shaking their grass skirts and thrusting their hands into the air.

The Zulu became infamous for tribal conquests and battles with British and Boer colonialists. Today, the Zulu name is instantly recognizable. But in these rolling sun-scorched hills spotted with thorny Acacia trees and dried aloe plants, the Zulu heritage has gone relatively unnoticed by the outside world.

The eMakhosini Valley, or the Valley of the Kings, is at the center of the tribe’s culture. Shaka Zulu established his first royal residence in the valley, and a monarchy with an unbroken link to the tribe’s origin continues.

But until recently there was nothing commemorating the seven Zulu kings buried in the valley, or the rich history of the tribe. During apartheid, the Zulu were denied free access to the land and any celebration of black heritage was prohibited.

Now, Gabela and Ncanana and the monument where they work are at the forefront of changes aimed at bringing back the mystique of the Zulu tribe.

The eMakhosini project, which officially opened this year, is part of an ambitious project to turn the valley into a major tourist destination aimed at not only boosting civic pride but also providing work in a region where more than 75 percent of people are unemployed.

Officials are negotiating to buy private land to conserve the burial grounds and to complete a cultural heritage park that they hope will include an IMAX theater, museum and access to the Opathe Game Reserve, one of the few remaining habitats for the endangered black rhino.

“We wanted to put something in that will knock people’s socks off,” said Barry Marshall, director of Amafa/Heritage KZN. “It’s an area that’s the holiest of the holy for the Zulu, but we needed a big, must-see project to get things going here. But the biggest benefit is restoring Zulu pride and access to their ancestors’ land.”

The eMakhosini project is a reflection of efforts to boost tourism that are unfolding across South Africa.

Since Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, the government has made it a priority to rectify the historical imbalances of the apartheid era by giving the largely impoverished black population new opportunities.

In 1996 and 1998, the government set the framework for a national tourism industry with the goals of driving economic growth, creating new jobs, reducing poverty and redistributing wealth.

“It allows an entry into the market,” said Cheryl Carolus, president of South Africa Tourism. “We need entry levels for people who were denied jobs under apartheid.”

Transformation, however, has been slow, and many concede that the tourism industry still is not representative of the majority black population.

According to a 1999 industry report, approximately 95 percent of the South African tourism industry is white-owned. In 2000, after walking through Indaba, the country’s largest travel trade show, Vaslly Moosa, the minister of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism said, “There was a striking reality that the South African tourism industry is just too white.”

In the last few years, efforts to promote and develop black-owned tourism operations have intensified. New policies have been introduced at national, provincial and local levels to launch new enterprises.

“The government sees great potential in tourism in that it addresses some of the biggest social and economic problems,” Carolus said. “Tourism is recognized as one of the top five industries in South Africa. And now we’re putting the money where our mouth is. ... The expectation now is that there will be sustainable GNP growth, sustainable job creation, and economic transformation.”

And results are being realized, as with the eMakhosini project.

Three years ago at Indaba, there were 12 small tourism businesses owned by individuals who had been sidelined during apartheid. At Indaba this year, there were 273. By 2010, tourism is expected to create more than 500,000 jobs in South Africa, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

The efforts also are slowly transforming perceptions of tourism in South Africa. Officials say tourism products are starting to offer more depth and variety.

“You gets your hands dirty here,” said Moeketsi Mosola, South African Tourism’s chief operating officer. “We get you out on the dance floor. It’s not a first-off destination. You engage with the South African people and interact with their culture. We’re starting to get more products that offer that here.”

Gary Murphy, president of Brendan Worldwide Vacations in Chatsworth, Calif., said that South Africa is coming out with more tourism offerings and is also raising the level of service.

“You are seeing more four- and five-star hotels,” he said. “People feel that they are getting a good value. It is one part of Africa that is still selling very well.”

While tourist arrivals to South Africa have been uneven in recent years, the country’s efforts to reinvent itself as a “safe” destination after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks appear to be working.

Arrivals to South Africa rose 11 percent last year, surpassing 6 million for the first time and making the country one of the fastest-growing tourism destinations in the world. Travel from North America rose 9 percent.

“Certainly after September 11 people have had to re-evaluate what they perceive as dangerous,” said Pam Sykes, a chief economist at Infonomics South Africa. “South Africa has been able to leverage this to its advantage.”

The country’s efforts to build a tourism industry, however, are not without challenges.

Tourism growth remains disjointed. On the provincial level, only KwaZulu Natal, Western Cape and Gauteng have well-developed tourism initiatives. The areas also attract the most tourists and are where most development is taking place. But six other less well-resourced provinces struggle.

The Poverty Relief project of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism also places a priority on funding areas that draw the most tourists and have the most potential as destinations.

So far, there also is little training for individuals who want to run a business and there are few opportunities to establish business networks. Financial support also is limited, and applications for the financial support that does exist are often too complicated.

“Access to the market, training, issues of financing, business linkages, the adaptability of the entrepreneur to changing market conditions; there are a whole series of challenges facing new businesses,” said Chris Rogerson, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. “The government is well aware of this and is shifting resources from programs that haven’t worked.”

One of the biggest challenges facing eMakhosini, and one mirrored in other rural areas, is the lack of infrastructure. The government is realizing that better infrastructure can aid in the development of new tourism businesses, according to Rogerson.

Other problems are more ingrained, such as the troubles of finding a tour operator to bring visitors to eMakhosini.

“The biggest issue now is getting the tourists in,” said Marshall, of Amafa/Heritage KZN.

“Because the black community is perceived by some white South African tour operators, who have not been able to shed their prejudice, as dangerous.”