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Community-based tourism brings visitors to “the real Africa.”

For a different kind of holiday, why not drink emasi or eat umbhidvo with a family in their homestead, or hike up a rugged hillside to check out ancient caves in which the San documented their hunting and other activities on cave walls?
James Hall

Community-based tourism is the catch phrase that has excited government planners, economists, and environmentalists concerned with preserving pristine wilderness areas throughout Africa, and nowhere more than in this tiny kingdom. Tied to another catch phrase of the day, sustainable development, this new way of managing tourism has the potential to offer impoverished rural people a way to earn a living on their land, while giving them motivation to keep that land intact and unspoiled.

As for a new breed of “cultural tourists,” or even the mainstream tourist who wishes to get out of the hotel and off the guided tour bus to explore the country, community-based tourism offers a way to see the local people up close and personal.

“Swazis are inviting people into their homes,” says tour operator Mxolisi Mdluli. “It is not dead exhibits like at a museum, or cultural performances like the dancers beside the hotel pool. Communities show how they live. It is authentic, and the Swazis are happy to play host.”

Part of the happiness comes from pride that foreigners wish to see how Swazis live, and they come not as patronizing visitors but as receptive, even appreciative, admirers of traditional Swazi life.

“We used to think there was nothing special about our food, like our emasi (a sour milk drink) or umbhidvo (a spinach dish with peanuts, onions and hot chili peppers). But to the Europeans who have never tasted these foods, it is a revelation,” says Mary Shongwe, from the rural Mliba community.

Community-based tourism comes in two forms. The first is when villages that still have the appearance of traditional Swaziland – with thatched huts and branch cattle enclosures – and where people carry on the skills and crafts of their forefathers, allow visitors to come and see how they live.

The Mantenga Cultural Village has become the kingdom’s top tourist attraction for simulating the same thing. In an authentic replica of a 19th century traditional homestead, a family carries on the gardening, cattle herding, mat weaving, and beer brewing ordinarily found in any rural homestead even today. But the “family” is comprised of actors playing their parts, and the village is situated on parkland, though conveniently located near the major tourist hotels.

A second form of community tourism is the opening up of an area to scenic or archaeological sites. Swaziland’s northern highlands are pocked by ancient caves where the country’s original inhabitants, the San tribe people, documented their hunting and other activities on cave walls. No roads lead to these sites. A few are accessible via footpaths, but most must be located through the help of local guides. Sometimes visitors must endure hikes up rugged hillsides, crossing streams while balancing atop upended trees.

“It is an adventure,” says Mdluli. “I cater to a lot of hikers, young people mostly in their twenties. But older tourists like to get out into the countryside, too.”

Government has urged Swazis to open their own tourism businesses. The challenge is to find start-up capital.

“Tourism is the world’s largest industry, but the benefits go to relatively few,” says former tourism minister Musa Nkhambule. “A hotel, resort, or entertainment or recreation facility is a big investment. The owners of those enterprises make a lot of money. But common Swazis usually benefit through minimum wage or temporary jobs.”

Community-based tourism needs little capital. Often, the resources are already at hand – an archaeological site or a homestead that can accommodate visitors.

Government and international donors do provide start-up funds for communities seeking sustainable, environmentally friendly development.

Ted Reilly, executive director of Big Game Parks of Swaziland, is the kingdom’s top conservationist. He supports community tourism for its role in preserving culture and environment.

“The people of an area have a motivation to keep their environment pristine in order to draw paying visitors who demand beautiful surroundings,” he says. “Tourism is the one industry with the biggest future. The mines are exhausted. Manufacturing depletes natural resources, and it pollutes. But tourism if properly managed, is one industry that leaves the environment untouched, because consumers come, pay money, and leave with nothing but happy memories and keepsake photos.”

Swaziland’s Mlawula Nature Reserve was one of the country’s first community-based tourism projects. The village of Mlawula in Swaziland’s eastern lowveld was becoming depopulated as young people headed for towns to seek jobs. Farming had always been difficult in a semi-arid land that was ill suited for large-scale agriculture. There were no minerals to be mined. The area was unconnected to the national electricity and telephone grid, and even cellular phone signals did not reach the community.

But the very isolation of Mlawula made it attractive to visitors who wished to get away from it all.

The area leader, Chief Nyoni, wished to preserve the dwindling wildlife of the community, and was receptive to the idea of a local nature reserve. The Ministries of Tourism and Economic Planning got involved, and foreign donor funding was lined up for seed money to start the park. A grant was secured to construct a guest lodge. A tourism consultant was hired for a marketing strategy. He advised the community to “be themselves,” and not add any improvements that would fundamentally alter the nature of the place.

The community will use the profits made from tourism receipts to secure a reliable supply of drinking water, a goal long sought by residents.

Noting Mlawula’s success, other communities are seeking advice from the Ministry of Tourism to attract the attention of visitors to their areas. For its part, the Ministry of Tourism is beginning to mention in its brochures and literature not just the nation’s established hotels and museums, but the smaller eclectic offerings found off the beaten track.

“Tourism has suffered in Swaziland and everywhere else since the September 11 terrorism attacks on the United States,” says acting Minister of Tourism Musa Mdluli. “But the industry is expected to pick up, and when it does, we have to be positioned to attract attention. The little offerings in the communities draw such attention. They offer tourists a way to experience Africa in a way they have not had the opportunity to do before.”

Ninety per cent of tourists entering Africa go to Egypt to marvel at the antiquities there. That leaves the rest of the continent scrambling for the remaining 10 per cent. Most of that percentage goes to well-known tourist attractions such as Cape Town’s Waterfront, Tanzania’s Serengeti Park, or Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Swaziland offers tradition. As sub-Saharan Africa’s last country to be ruled by a hereditary monarch, the kingdom’s people faithfully follow customs such as the annual Incwala pageants in which the national ancestral spirits are petitioned to bring good rains and bountiful harvests.

The Reed Dance, where tens of thousands of maidens dance topless in colourful outfits in honour of the Queen Mother, attracts a number of visitors. But both events are one-day affairs, and are rarely announced more than a few weeks in advance, to the consternation of tourism industry officials who are unable to advise visitors about advance bookings.

“I believe small-scale community-based tourism is the way to show off traditional Swaziland all year every day,” says tour guide Mdluli.

Maxwell Schmidt, a visitor from Stuttgart, Germany, backpacked his way to Mlawula, and was charmed by the reception he received. “The Swazis are famous for being friendly people. They are wonderful hosts. I was given attention you won’t find in a five-star hotel.”

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