Friday 20 July 2007

What colour is tourism?

Last Friday many of us will have read an article by Tshireletso Motlogelwa in Mmegi entitled “The black man’s burden”. This recounted his experiences on a trip he took to Durban, paid for by the Kwazulu Natal Tourism Board.

Before I let rip I think I should make my position on tourism clear. It’s staggeringly obvious that it’s of critical importance. I’m not exaggerating just so I can make some ridiculously self-important, journalistic point. It really is. Sit back for a moment and experience the Consumer Watchdog Introduction to the Importance of Tourism to Botswana’s Future.

As a nation we have relied largely on the income we make from diamonds for most of our independent history. They have helped us build schools, hospitals and roads. They have helped us reinforce a reputation for democracy, freedom and relative prosperity. They have helped us to employ well over a hundred thousand government employees. Oh hang on, forget that last one, it’s not exactly something to shout about. But diamonds HAVE been a remarkable blessing.

But there’s something we have to say quietly. Something we can’t let the world know about diamonds. Something that is almost a taboo.

They are worthless.

Think about it. To what practical purpose can you put a gemstone quality diamond. Err… nothing apart from decoration. Now of course there’s a huge demand for that. We all decorate things, whether it’s our houses, our wives or a birthday cake. But decoration is inherently worthless.

Now of course I’m not saying we should stop digging them up, should stop investing in our local diamond industries and above I’m not saying we should stop selling them. I’m not completely deluded, but the lesson our nation is slowly learning is that diversification is essential. We need to find other ways of funding all the great things we do as a nation.

Tourism must be one of the solutions.

So there’s our lesson, stating the absolutely obvious that we clearly all know already. Tourism is essential.

So why was I surprised to read the article last week? Because I think some of the things that were said seem almost determined to impede the efforts we are making to boost tourism.

One little mentioned aspect of tourism is that a significant proportion of tourists in any country are locals. Contrary to the image many of us have, “tourists” aren’t all foreigners. Tourists can be you and me. Tourists can be the guys who live next door to us who’ve gone up to Khama Rhino Sanctuary for the weekend. They can be those of who’ve saved up for a trip to the Delta. They can be those of us who delight in spending a Saturday night with the kids up at Arne’s Horse Safari, just three quarters of an hour from Gaborone city centre.

So why was my fellow Mmegi writer upset? What had gone so wrong? He seemed to have two major problems.

Firstly that most of the staff in the hotel were black. But then aren’t almost all of the working people in KZN black? Aren’t almost all South Africans, and indeed almost all Batswana, are black. So why would it be surprising that most people in fair-wage-paying, hard-working, feeding and educating the kids jobs turn out to be black?

Of course in South Africa in particular there is a legacy of horrible discrimination. Of course it will take a generation to right these wrongs. Of course these things take a while to overcome. But the thing that strikes me is that these people have jobs. They are earning a living by working hard. They are doing what our parents told us to do. Get a job, work hard and make some money and find opportunities to make a better life for yourself. Yes, I know it’s VERY boring but every so often our parents WERE right about something.

The thing that struck me last time I was with the family at Sun City (Yes, I know it’s slightly trashy but my kids love it and, just between you and me, I rather enjoy it too) is that of course most of the staff were black. But more importantly so were most of the customers! Middle class customers of every skin colour were there spending their hard-earned cash on some ridiculous self-indulgence and having a great deal of fun.

The other point that was made was that the hotel he stayed in served enormous portions of food that somehow were “at odds with the whole ethos of Setswana culture”. I’m sorry, would he rather have been given small portions? Would he rather the staff called for a doctor to estimate the exact size of his stomach before serving him?

Hotels and their restaurants are in the business of satisfying customers. Satisfying them. Of indulging them. Let’s be honest. They are in the business of exceeding our requirements. Would you want to go to a cinema and see a film that only JUST satisfied your demand for entertainment? Of course not. We want to come out of the cinema feeling excited, thrilled and emotional. It’s the same for hotels, restaurants and pretty much all tourism experiences. Don’t we want tourists, whether local or foreigners, to go away from Botswana tourist spots thrilled at the experience, promising to tell their friends how overwhelming the experience was?

Surely we want to overwhelm our tourists, whether it’s some hugely rich foreigner or just you and me? Isn’t that what tourism is all about? Shouldn’t we be indulging tourists as well as ourselves?

This week’s stars!

  • Tom Piper, for always leaving me a little bit happier than before he arrived. Rest In Peace Tom.

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