Tuesday, October 5, 2010

To be a Tourist

For the past week I've been in Cape Town with my South African family: Cornelius and Kathy Thomas, Macrae, Britt and Diana. This was intended to be a vacation for all of us, and an opportunity to see more of the country of South Africa, but I also was able to use it to build up my research. I spent the whole of the trip paying close attention and taking notes on tourism: my own experience, the things I noticed about other tourists, and what I picked up in conversations with locals. This constant awareness made it a very different kind of travel experience: instead of just seeing the sights, I was constantly analyzing my own actions and motivations, as well as those of the people I encountered. One thing I did was to pay attention to the advertising that parks and other tourism venues were using, trying in particular to find those that claimed or appeared to practice ecotourism, or that advertised their commitment to conservation and other environmental pursuits. I found two that were very explicitly committed to the principles behind ecotourism: Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours and the Aquila Game Reserve (details to come). These were out of the 40 pamphlets I collected and numerous billboards I passed.

Another thing that I tried to pay attention to was who benefits from tourists. One group of people who are a very loud, constant presence in the high-tourist areas of Cape Town are the street vendors, selling anything from carved wood souvenirs to cell phone chargers. I always thought that buying from these people was better than from a store, as it supports their mini-business and the money goes straight to locals; though of course you have to watch out for being charged "tourist prices," which can be more than triple what they charge locals. As it turns out my assumptions were very incorrect. Almost all of these vendors are Nigerians and other foreigners, and many are in South Africa illegally. The "authentic" jewelry and crafts (carved elephants, masks, bowls, etc.) are mass produced for cheap in Nigeria and other countries, then imported and sold for five times their value (or more) in South Africa. Buying these sorts of things thus benefits neither South Africans nor South African industries, and doesn't even get you a piece of traditional artwork or jewelry from the area.

One thing that really impacted me about Cape Town was the huge economic divide between people living in the city. This is a common theme throughout South Africa: this country has the world's greatest gap between rich and poor. Up on the mountainside and on the sea-facing slope live the very wealthy, and then the further you move down the mountain the poorer the people become. Within twenty minutes you can drive from the homes of millionaires, through the middle class, and into the very poor areas of Manenburg and Gugulethu. The tourists see Camps Bay with its picture-perfect, luxury beaches, which were so recently reserved for white people only, and they are told that now South Africa is a democracy and doesn't have the problems it used to, that now everyone has equal opportunity and everything is great. But they don't see the crime-ridden, gang-controlled streets only a few miles away. It's really shocking to go from such incredible poverty to such over-the-top opulence, and to know that most of the people who live in the huge mansions overlooking the picturesque views don't even realize the conditions people are living in in the shadow of their mountain.

Photo Credit: 1. Britt Smith; 2. Diana Pratt

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