As tourism reinvents itself in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, countries need to capitalise on their natural advantages and existing infrastructure to create unique visitor experiences and attractions.
From its dark skies and gravel roads to clean, fresh air and quiet spaces, South Africa has natural assets in abundance that could be leveraged to promote tourism, especially as post-Covid travel interests are reshaping the tourism industry.
As South African tourism authorities look to rebuild, they could consider developing new visitor attractions and experiences over the next five years that celebrate what we already have, from our local heritage to our spectacular views. Done right, these could help draw tourists back, or even attract new ones to our shores.
Based on what’s working in other countries, five opportunities stand out that are fun, don’t require a huge amount of investment and could create a geographical tourism spread outside of traditional tourism areas. Most importantly, they create spaces for locals first.
A multisensory exhibition for a musical icon
Brenda Fassie, the Queen of Afropop, named “Madonna of the Townships” by Time magazine in 2001, remains a music icon. Currently there appears to be only one memorial to her, a life-size bronze sculpture by Angus Taylor in Newtown.
But this national icon could be the centre of an engaging experience that explores her creativity, her music, her fashion and the turbulent times she lived through. Born in Langa in 1964, she died in 2004 in Buccleuch, Gauteng – her life spans three interesting decades in South Africa, musically and politically.
The multisensory exhibition would appeal to young and old, local and international tourists. It could be a pop-up exhibition that travels to major cities in South Africa and perhaps finds a permanent home in Langa, Cape Town, in the home where she was born, becoming an anchor attraction for Langa’s cultural quarter.
A world-class rail-trail conversion along the Garden Route
Rail trails are former railway lines that have been converted to paths designed for recreational pedestrian and cycle access. These low-impact experiences provide access to leisure for a broad segment of the local and international tourism community, as well as for residents.
Australia now has 131 such multi-use recreational trails. Converting an abandoned railway corridor into a public recreational trail has numerous benefits, including the opportunity to use many disused buildings along the rail track for coffee stops, overnight rest points, lunch stops and cycle hire shops. Sixty percent of rail-trail cyclists overnight on or near the rail trail. Rail trail-related tourism opportunities are particularly skewed towards the small business owner.
Rail track conversions usually start small and add mileage as the budget allows. Open to the whole family, whether walkers or recreational cyclists, they support the renewed focus on health and wellness and the outdoors. Think the Sea Point Promenade on steroids.
The Outeniqua Choo Tjoe has been out of commission for 16 years since heavy flooding in 2006 damaged the tracks. It’s an exceptionally scenic route and carried more than 115,000 visitors annually in its heyday. There is a strong lobby group focused on returning the Choo Tjoe to service. We could create two exciting new offers on the Garden Route that will spread tourism spending. Choose a part of the track that allows for a one-hour return steam ride – perhaps the section from George over the recently named Kaaimans Railway Bridge Landmark – and convert the rest to a world-class rail trail.
A playground that harnesses the wind
Part of our tourism economy is already leveraging the wind – South Africa is a kite-surfer’s paradise for strong, constant wind – with more than 90% wind probability in the summer months of November through February. How else can we harness this?
Internationally, wind farms have become tourist attractions. Turbine tourism, involving tours of wind turbine farms, has become increasingly common, with some sites allowing visitors to climb up inside the wind turbine, and even base-jump off it.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Backyard wonders – our readers’ top holiday picks at home in South Africa”
Internationally, playgrounds have been built using discarded wind turbines. But I would love to see the development of a playground that uses the wind as its key focus, a place to go on a windy day that’s entertaining for both adults and children. Our wind engineers could design something that is more fun in the wind than on a windless day. When the Table Mountain Cableway and Robben Island are closed due to strong winds, this would be the destination of choice.
A question of art – Big Fun Art (BFA)
Art museums and cultural and heritage attractions have their place and I visit all regularly.
But there has been a trend in “Big Fun Art” that is – and let’s admit this – “grammable”. Yes, I know mainstream art curators hate this idea, too light and fluffy for them. The big question is: is it art? Well, perhaps that’s not the question. Perhaps the question is simply: is it fun? Why so serious? The popularity of the New7Wonders Yellow Frames by Cape Town artist Porky Hefer is a case in point, as is the street art of Salt River – what are these but Big Fun Art?
Chicago’s Cloud Gate, aka The Bean by Anish Kapoor, was unveiled in 2004 and quickly became one of the city’s most iconic attractions. Jeff Koons’s Puppy in Bilbao, Spain, and Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin on Naoshima Island, Japan, are both listed as iconic public art pieces. The answer is that it can be art and it can be fun. It can be Big Fun Art.
A reason to stop and enjoy the view
Observation decks, lookout points, viewing platforms… why do we love them? They make us stop, they frame a view, we think about the meaning of what we are looking at and we point down to where we want to go next. They become a destination in and of themselves. Iconic observation experiences such as the London Eye, Empire State Building and Table Mountain drew more than 54 million visitors in 2019.
Tourism Norway wanted to create an active tourism product out of the abundant natural views along its fjord routes. Architectural firms were given the task to each design a “nature-aware” rest stop or viewing deck, thus creating a network of nature observation sites.
Norway’s 18 tourist routes each have their own collection of architectural gestures designed to call attention to the landscape and encourage visitors to stop and enjoy the view, thereby reshaping how we engage with nature. The lookout points have become must-see attractions, drawing visitors all along the fjord route.
South Africa is spoilt for choice when it comes to spectacular viewpoints, and yet, too often we remain in our cars. We are looking for reasons to stop and get out and immerse ourselves in the landscape.
Attractions can make a critical contribution to the domestic and international tourism economy by letting us engage with sites in a different way and drawing us into new regions. Observation decks, big fun art and railway trails are fun interventions with proven success elsewhere that could make a substantial contribution to rebuilding the economy and creating new jobs.
They celebrate our heritage, culture and natural wonders and do not require mind-blowing budgets. As we continue to emerge from our Covid shells, it’s time to get out there to play and celebrate what we already have.