Why You Should Strive to Be a Good Tourist for South Africa and How to Do It

Chances are that at school you have never heard about the Population Registration Act introduced in South Africa in 1950. But maybe you have seen a documentary about the Stellenbosch wine region and the Boulder penguins and would like to fly to Cape Town one day. Then you will probably be quite shocked when Cole,  your guide for the day, starts talking about politics and inequalities in South Africa during a Pinotage tasting. You will feel uncomfortable with the fact that he knows everything about your country while you have no idea why he speaks so passionately and at the same time so sharply about the “Rainbow Nation”.


I have travelled to South Africa a couple of weeks ago and that is exactly what happened. Tourism had boomed there in recent decades before suffering a setback with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Yet, despite this growth, both inequality and economic development have gotten worse since the official end of apartheid in 1994. These two contradictory pieces of information – in combination with the fiery rage of Cole – have puzzled me quite a bit and prompted me to look for further explanation. Well, how would you feel if almost thirty years later the inequality in the distribution of wealth was still so great for the majority of the black population?


Numbers are central to understanding the profound discontent felt by many South Africans. Statistics say that the share of total personal wealth owned by the richest 1% was extreme in the 1990s and it still is today. Since then, there has even been a slight increase in wealth disparity, which emphasizes the persistence of highly hierarchical institutions that are the contemporary offspring of colonial or apartheid societies. While voting rights have been extended to all, the ownership system remains dual. Descendants of slave owners still own most of the wealth: the top 10% of the rich is made up of 60% white South Africans, who barely represent 10% of the total population. Given these facts, I went through each of the “tourist activities” that followed on my trip with mixed feelings. Although it was natural to enjoy the beauty of the land, that privileged and comfortable way of experiencing it seemed neither right nor authentic anymore. Should not there be a positive correlation between the increase in tourism and economic development? Can really tourism growth exacerbate wealth inequality? Some studies foundthat tourism growth may actually increase income inequality in developing economies. For tourism to be a driver for local development and sustainable economic growth in such contexts, policies need to be put in place to empower small, local enterprises and unskilled labour engaged in tourismrelated services. Therefore, the daunting figures about wealth inequality today underline not just the legacy of white rule, but also the government’s failure to help most black South Africans overcome it.


How can we as tourists do our part in this? Informing ourselves properly and seeking authentic experiences is crucial. This approach can serve a dual purpose: promoting small local entrepreneurs and broadening our cultural backgrounds. I can tell, the windswept sea at the Cape of Good Hope and the view of the vineyards will leave you breathless. But to understand this country you must capture its intrinsic ambivalence. That is why you should learn about the precarious conditions of the farm workers and how the “Tot System” – has increased alcoholism among them, resulting in widespread social damage among the Coloured community. Then, you should feel not quite comfortable drinking that wine and it is this feeling that can make your stay in Cape Town unique and different from any other. If after your trip you are still convinced that being in Cape Town just feels like Europe, you have completely missed the other face of South Africa: the townships and the wonderful people who have consciously chosen to stay there and show the world such an important piece of our history, regrettable events that must remain alive in our collective memory and education systems to enable each generation to reflect and think critically.


Tourism has the potential to contribute to the prosperity of the host country and should be linked to financial development and economic growth in the long term. As tourists, we should choose our experiences mindfully and thus play our part in the sustainable development of this extraordinary nation.


So, will you take your family and friends to the real South Africa?



This column is written by On-Campus MBA student Alessia Arena as part of our On-Campus MBA International week. Our On-Campus track has an on campus learning format and is part of the executive modular part-time MaastrichtMBA programme. The programme has a Triple Crown accreditation and is aimed for professionals with at least 5 years of working experience.

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