Tourism, like most industries, ebbs and flows, enjoying periodic new, niche markets that sometimes grow into mainstream subsections of the industry and become powerful contributors to revenue and profit.
It is so with ‘cultural tourism‘ - a relatively new trend in tourism - where people visit foreign countries specifically to imbibe the national culture, interact with the local people and intimately understand how history, landscape and time have defined nations as different from each other.
This is the ‘new’ cultural tourism - a visit to a destination not to see great works of art or to visit places of momentous historic interest or to attend the ballet, opera or theatre, but a visit to a destination to meet the people, eat their food, understand and experience their mythologies and religions, sleep in their homes (however humble, or grand) and join them in their rituals.
Although any destination may legitimately be described as a cultural destination, the cultural offerings of some destinations (like South Africa) are simply grittier, more textured and more colourful than others. This, of course, is determined by tourism source markets because destinations that are deemed ‘most cultural’ are declared so by the western European and north American tourists that visit them and who seek cultural ‘differentness’. And western Europe and north America are the largest source markets for most destinations on earth… including destinations in north America and western Europe.
South Africa is peppered with ‘cultural villages‘ where one may go to experience various cultural practices presented in digestible, theatric performances. As enchanting as these performances are, the tourist remains an observer. The real culture tourist wants to participate, and South Africa gives plenty scope for such participation.
It’s on the streets of South Africa - in the villages; towns; cities; game reserves and on the beaches, both remote and popular - that one interacts with the real culture of the most diverse and fascinating nation on earth.
South Africa is home to about 46 million people of astonishing diversity and of numerous cultures, religions, languages and outlooks. Each group has its distinct culture. Yet they all share a common South African identity and culture.
It’s this instinctive common South African identity that intrigues most visitors. South Africans instinctively know, for example, when to speak English to each other… when one of the 11 official mother tongues of the nation is not universally understood among a group of Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and Sepedi speaking people at a football match.
This easy and frequent use of English has made it the lingua franca of South Africa, and has created an English vocabulary that is uniquely, and charmingly, South African. And it’s universally understood by all South Africans. It is also spoken with pride and patriotism and with a deeply affectionate, palpable sense of belonging. It’s a marker for a tribe with a strong sense of national identity that pervades the regional and cultural differences of Desmond Tutu’s Rainbow Nation. South Africans must be amongst the most tolerant people on earth.
They are tolerant of each other‘s religions and religious practices that are as diverse as high mass on Sundays in glittering cathedrals to tribal cleansing ceremonies and baptisms that occur in the rural hinterland and in suburban parks and gardens.
In South Africa you can attend ritual slaughters; initiation ceremonies; white western-style weddings; traditional weddings (where the bride wears a loincloth and beaded bodice and offers her husband’s family a calabash of home-brewed beer as a symbol of two families uniting); labola ceremonies (where young men pay the ‘bride price’ for the woman they are to marry) and impromptu jazz evenings in drinking houses and clubs.
You can meet boys who take care of the vast Nguni herds in the rural areas of the country, and their grandmothers who weave baskets; work in ceramics and cook over woodfires in the courtyard of the family home.
Then you can join them for dinner and eat roast chicken and boiled crushed maize and beans. You can listen to folk stories told next to a dying fire and apply a secret blend of crushed herbs to your skin to keep the mosquitoes away. You can sleep in the simple, yet comfortable and hospitable homes, that generations have raised their children in and you can wake at dawn to a chorus of wild birdsong, the smell of wood fires and a rooster crowing nearby to greet the rising sun.
Come and visit South Africa! and while we are still here you can come and stay with us, saves you a bit on hotel bills :-)
Enjoy your week!