Spiritual tourism in South Africa (from 2013)

TOURISM is one of South Africa’s fastest-growing economic sectors, a big foreign exchange earner and a major contributor to employment. But Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk has recently highlighted major challenges — including air route capacity constraints, high fuel prices and visa processing delays — that may hamper further success. Domestic tourism, he observed, must also be boosted if the industry is to expand sustainably. As visitor numbers have increased, however, prestige attractions such as the Kruger National Park, Table Mountain and Robben Island have become congested. Cultural villages, rock paintings and traditional museums have little appeal to first-time domestic tourists.

A partnership between the Department of Tourism and the Industrial Development Corporation is evaluating the potential for a budget resort chain for relatively low-income earners. Meanwhile, Van Schalkwyk plans to extend the Sho’t Left campaign and encourage supply-side diversification. Now rumours are circulating that he has identified four niche opportunities for heritage product development.

The first involves an expansion of cultural tourism. The present bias in favour of “African cultural villages” in rural areas has been revisited. The Sho’t Left campaign will instead showcase a “Red October Show” in which bare-breasted popular icons Steve Hofmeyr and Dan Roodt will blend traditional music and the “weed dance” to expose the “inhumane slaughter and oppression” of the white Afrikaner. In order to attract the burgeoning black middle class, a new theme park in Cape Town’s southern suburbs will enable visitors to view “Constantia ladies” in their natural habitat and reveal the mystery of what they do all day. A proposed Gupta Compound tour will incorporate Saxonwold helicopter rides, bush sightings of furtive ministers, and much-sought-after free copies of The New Age newspaper.

A second conservation-based programme involves a partnership between the departments of tourism and mineral resources. “Green tourism” champions complain that Pan African Resources (a company in which African National Congress deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s Shanduka has a 26% stake) has been awarded prospecting rights inside the 27,000ha Barberton Nature Reserve, Mpumalanga’s only potential World Heritage Site. Now Mineral Resources Minister Susan Shabangu has defused such criticism by proposing amendments to the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act that will boost investor uncertainty and so terminate all new investment in the resources sector. In this way, she hopes to protect green tourism jewels such as the central Karoo for future generations.

Third, consultants plan to supplement the “Big Five” with the “Top Six”. According to proposals, one new tour will begin at picturesque Nkandla and follow a “Top Six Battlefields Route” linking the struggle sites of Polokwane and Mangaung. The game drive will conclude with the spectacle of the giant African political elephant (Loxodonta Mantashe Africana) marauding across the plains of Boksburg. This magnificent animal, the largest mammal in the world, is more than 4m wide, drinks 70l-100l of water a day and communicates by means of low-frequency rumbles that can be picked up more than 9km away.

A final initiative will capitalise on the global boom in “spiritual tourism”. Officials recently travelled to Lourdes, France, a small town that has become a place of mass pilgrimage because of the healing properties of its spring water. Consultants for the Department of Tourism believe that section 79 of the Correctional Matters Amendment Act, governing the granting of medical parole in South Africa, could be used to tap into this enormous market.

The Roman Catholic Church has certified only 68 miraculous healing events at Lourdes, despite visits from more than 200-million pilgrims since 1860. Provisional analysis by Statistics South Africa indicates that a far higher proportion of tourists granted medical parole certification in Pretoria could expect to enjoy a miraculous recovery from their ailments.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

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