The concept of experiential tourism or community based experiences, whereby visitors are offered opportunities to interact with local people in their homes and neighbourhoods, has come in from the cold in South Africa, writes Anthea Rossouw.
Put another way, it is an idea whose time – at long last – has arrived. Market trends now firmly indicate that visitors to South Africa increasingly favour meeting and mingling with locals in community life and activities, as opposed to traditional sightseeing tours that predominantly focus on scenery and/or wildlife.
Regardless of the term used to define the experience – ‘experiential tourism’ or ‘participatory tourism’ or ‘social immersion tourism’ or ‘voluntourism’ – the common denominator is that significant numbers of international travellers are interested in meeting and interacting directly with the people of South Africa. Not just look at them, hear about them, or gaze at them through a bus window. At Dreamcatcher South Africa, which I founded specifically for this purpose, we call it ‘going truly local – being with the people’ and our website reflects an increasing number of savvy and conscientious travellers seeking authentic local community interactions and local residential options. Incidentally, many mainstream tour operators are reporting a similar spike in requests for homestay or local guesthouse accommodation.
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In the belief that ‘in diversity there is harmony’, we have pioneered our niche tourism products and services by offering heartwarming local hospitality and guest experiences to discerning international visitors since 1991, by ensuring that they meet as many different cultures as possible. Moreover we have helped South African women (Emqolweni Kamammas – meaning the women in communities with a baby on their back, and in this instance, the community) and men (Bhutis, meaning brother), develop into successful tourism entrepreneurs. Dreamcatcher has over 50 registered Dreamcatcher tourism providers, working with over 100 community projects in 20 communities, and impacting on the lives of over 10,000 children, youth and women.
Throughout the country, along major tourist routes, we have helped over 25 Kamammas successfully turn their family homes into charming and comfortable guesthouse venues called Kamamma Homestay Accommodations. Lodgings offer the normal amenities that you will find at a typical country inn (private room and mostly private bath, hot water, nutritious meals – including meeting special dietary needs, etc.). In addition to homestays, we offer ‘Cook-Ups with Kamamma’ – entertaining, hands-on cooking experiences where visitors learn about traditional foods and local cultures as they participate in cooking up a lunch or dinner with the Kammama in her own kitchen. Or ‘Walkabouts & Talkabouts with Kamammas and Bhutis’ – where guests are welcomed behind the scenes and “inducted” into the neighbourhood (strolling around to meet and greet the community leaders, elders, youth; visit the shop on the corner; peek in at the church; attend a local football match and cheer for the home team). We also offer interested tourists the chance to slow down and an opportunity to incorporate one, two, or three days of social engagement (which can also include helping out, depending on the itinerary and need at grass roots level, or simply to share their world with the community), in community activities, (or school or clinic) into their travel itinerary.
Our volunteer programmes, which started in 1991, cover durations ranging from one week to six months. These highly acclaimed programmes offer rewarding opportunities for personal growth, both for the volunteer and for the community. This is our hallmark and, together with volunteers, we are honoured to have affected significant changes at community level. Programmes are tailor-made for clients, concentrating on the volunteers skills or by developing special projects that they can get involved in to make a difference. Of utmost importance is that volunteers do not only transfer skills. They learn from the communities and a lot about themselves too, thus benefitting mutually. Our pioneer efforts into the arena of ‘responsible tourism activities’ are a win-win for the traveller and for the community – indeed they have often been called life changing. We believe that by sharing the full magnificence of what our country is about, grows tourism and diversifies our product offering. A prime example is our award winning tour of the greater winelands. South Africa is blessed with fifteen meso-climates, which straddle over a thousand kilometres, and provide an abundance of interesting and diverse experiences. Expanding the food, wine and people engagement experience to cover this vast area, differs significantly from the classic wine tour. We offer an exciting alternative. We call it “A taste of reality – the alternative Winelands experience”. We have the same approach to intra-cultural experiences. The more cultures and locals that visitors meet around the country, the more meaningful the experience for both the visitors and the locals.
Dreamcatcher also gives high priority to sustainability, which includes environmental impact, follow a holistic approach. We have been working to address the UN Millennium Goals since 2000. It is worth mentioning that along with the goal of providing local men and women with the requisite business knowledge and skills to become successful providers of tourism services, Dreamcatcher also addresses various sustainable environmental impact projects. Because the Kamammas and Bhutis are taught to involve their neighbours and lead by example, these projects enhance the health and welfare of their home communities.
Innovative waste management, composting, growing crops including herbs, reducing carbon emissions and utilising solar energy, are but a few of the initiatives used to reduce their impact, protect the environment and contain costs. Developing this specific approach to the environment for tourism enterprises and people living in high density areas, I was subsequently appointed to trial it for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK, working with the University of Brighton. I will be delivering a presentation on this approach at the Global Conference on Waste in Belgium in September 2015. The Kamammas are setting an enviable example for responsible tourism in South Africa.
Dreamcatcher doesn’t mould servants working at menial jobs, but instead helps people become service providers themselves via job creation in their own communities. At this point it is important to note that Dreamcatcher is a registered non-profit community development organisation, and does not own a product itself. Dreamcatcher was started to facilitate sustainable socio-economic benefits in communities over 25 years ago. We live and work among the local people every day. This program Dreamcatcher has developed is called ‘Tourism Shamina, Shawena’ (Tourism is mine – it is yours).
We believe it is high time to turn the page and re-write the typical tourist experience of South Africa, packaging it with greater confidence to include “going truly local.” We are elated that Dreamcatcher already offers such unique opportunities on most travel routes throughout South Africa. Our traveller reviews are glowing and a quick peek at our official website www.dreamcatchersouthafrica.com will not only confirm our success, but will illuminate our ethos. After many years gainfully spent among the people across the country, Dreamcatcher acts as the central booking and business channelling office, offering these experiences to predominantly international visitors in one seamless booking. We love our beautiful and diverse country and want to share it with travellers, not merely show it to them. Our hands-on, personalised approach means that instead of churning out mass produced sightseeing tours, we can customise travelling experiences to accommodate individuals, families, and small groups, thus addressing the needs of this rapidly growing niche market. Today’s socially conscious travellers increasingly want to experience the world around them, not see it through a window over someone else’s shoulder! Let’s capitalise on this desire and offer them what they tell us they want. After all, “Tourism Shamina, Shawena!” Right? We add ‘life see’ to ‘sight see’.
The answer to frequently asked questions about how professional Dreamcatcher is, can be found on our website. However, we are justifiably proud of our credibility; that we proudly function as a legally branded organisation; that our Homestays and Cook-up with Kamamma services are legally registered brands as well; that we have been a member of the Southern African Tourism Services Association (SATSA) for over a decade; that we pay Value Added Tax (VAT) to the South African Revenue Services (SARS) and levies to Tourism Marketing South Africa (TOMSA), and finally that our Liability and Indemnity insurance cover has been provided by SATIB Insurance Brokers for over a decade as well.
We thank SATSA and Tourism Tattler for the opportunity to share Dreamcatcher’s success story. It has been a journey in its own right. Often frustrating, ultimately fulfilling. There is no fast track to sustainable community tourism development. But in the early years, it was important not to allow our detractors (who said it couldn’t and shouldn’t be done) to stand in our way. How the markets have changed. We are proud to have been pioneers.
Today Dreamcatcher and the Kamammas and Bhutis are known in the international market place as the organisation that founded true and authentic community experiences, free of the shackles of staging, simply offering life as it is. We take our place with pride, to offer our country’s culture and life as lived to the international market, where we are also part of the wider Global Community Tourist Network.
I proudly introduced the Kamammas and shared our journey at an invited TED talk I delivered in the US recently. To be honest, I felt like Cinderella! I have after all spent almost 26 years in the kitchens of Kamammas in townships across South Africa.
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About the Author: Anthea Rossouw is the founder of Dreamcatcher South Africa. For more information visit www.dreamcatchersouthafrica.com or call + 27 (0)28 754 3469.