September is Heritage Month, and issues such as responsible tourism and community tourism are in the spotlight. In this interview, Peter John Massyn, CEO of RETURNAfrica, says the tourism industry needs to take a look at reinventing the entire concept of community tourism in Africa.
Community tourism is a marketing buzzword that is powerful in its positive ‘feel-good’ factor, but how much of it is just marketing speak and how many real benefits actually go to communities across the continent?
Massyn says it’s important to look at the definition of community tourism in its true sense. He says, ‘Community tourism is a form of tourism that not only brings net benefits to local communities, especially those at the margins of society, but also includes them as owners (or co-owners). At RETURNAfrica, we believe this emphasis on ownership is vital if we are to overcome the legacies of dispossession and disadvantage that shaped many African societies. Our flagship operation at Pafuri in the north of the Kruger National Park is a partnership with the Makuleke community, who not only own the land but also have a major share in our business. The principles are simple but far-reaching – we pay a fair land rental; we co-own and co-direct the company; and we employ community members at all levels of the business.’
He says community tourism has changed and evolved over the years – and there have been many pitfalls along the way, as well as a few difficult lessons.
Massyn says, ‘Several countries have moved towards a more market-based approach, in which communities enter into partnerships with others to develop their assets as dynamic businesses operating within the market and without ongoing donor support. This has involved moving away from an earlier emphasis on small-scale, community-owned and managed businesses, which were often propped up by well-intentioned donors but which almost inevitably failed.’
He says the challenges of the past will hopefully be the building blocks of the future. ‘There are the obvious and well-rehearsed challenges that come with any attempt to bring those who have suffered disadvantage into the economic mainstream. But one of the most unexpected and frustrating has been the lack of government support. Many governments profess support for community tourism in the form of policy statements and even legislation, but when it comes to action, government agencies are at best inefficient and at worst obstructive (and, in some extreme cases, corrupt).’
He says many mistakes were made in the past. ‘At the most general level, the earlier emphasis on small, donor-funded operations managed by ill-prepared communities was the most damaging. It trapped community tourism in ‘the ghetto’, so to speak, and tainted it as a basket case living off handouts.’
He says that in order to thrive in the future, community tourism must enter into the mainstream. He says, ‘It must break out of what the (UK’s Overseas Development Institute) calls “the comfortable ghetto of small, niche operations” to become the norm in all forms of tourism and at all levels of the value chain.’
Massyn says that while the challenges are fierce, community tourism has enormous opportunities. ‘Many communities have rights or claims to potentially valuable assets. The opportunity for them is to convert these rights (or claims) into viable businesses.
He says that, for operators, the main opportunity is to gain access to high-value community land and other assets (such as wildlife, culture or even in some cases capital). He says, ‘I also think that industry has only scratched the surface when it comes to the branding and marketing power inherent in such partnerships.’
Community tourism will work in the future, says Massyn, only if communities are empowered by endowing them with rights, particularly in relation to ownership of assets valued by the market. He says this needs to be the first step. The next step is to convert their rights into profitable and sustained businesses.
‘This is a huge challenge but I believe it is the only way if we are to rectify the inequality of power that lies at the heart of exclusion and poverty,’ says Massyn.
RETURNAfrica recently expanded its offering in the north of Kruger with two new products. September sees the double launch of Baobab Hill Bush House and Pafuri Camp. ‘Since April, our Pafuri Walking Trails have become a huge hit,’ says Massyn. ‘But with Baobab Hill and Pafuri, we finally have the scale to make a real difference. Together with our Makuleke partners, our challenge now is to establish Pafuri as the core of a new brand that exemplifies the very highest ideals of community tourism.’
This interview is an edited version of an article featured previously in African Travel Market magazine.