Rail tourism has potential for growth in South Africa, but Is government an asset or liability to this sector, asks Prof Melville Saayman.
I had the wonderful opportunity to experience one of South Africa’s luxury trains, the Blue Train, and although this was one of the things I always wanted to do (a bucket list item), there was something that I found very disturbing.
It was not the train or the service, I appreciated what the staff did during the ride and I sincerely believe it is worth every cent. As someone who is always promoting South Africa and what it has to offer, the train or maybe I should say the route it followed opened my eyes for the role or lack thereof that government plays in ensuring a memorable experience.
Before I get down to the detail, I need to state that approximately 50% of the passengers on this train were foreigners, which made me realise that what these passengers see and experience of our country makes up part of their total experience in South Africa. Therefore, it is important to take these four issues seriously since all the other passengers and I experienced it en route from Pretoria to Cape Town.
First of all, the significant amount of litter next to the railway line.
This trail of litter followed us right into Cape Town where we were greeted with plastic bags all along the fences until we entered the Cape Town Station.
I blame PRASA (Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa) and the respective local authorities for this lack of maintenance.
I always teach my students that the first sign of bad management is a lack of maintenance. Recently, the CEO of PRASA was also fired most probably not for a lack of maintenance of the railway lines, but I believed he should have been fired for this and the issues that follow this one.
The second issue also relates to a lack of management by PRASA and that is the general management of the immediate area along the railway line.
It seems to be general practice that once maintenance is done the workers leave the area without cleaning it. Here I am not referring to litter; I am talking about concrete sleepers, cables, heaps of stone and rubble that are never removed to name but a few.
This is unacceptable since when one travels in Europe or most other parts of the world the railway lines are clean. This is also a practice when roads are constructed but somehow railway workers do not apply this principle despite the fact that passengers had to face it.
The third issue also refers to a lack of maintenance and that is the high number of dilapidated railway buildings or station buildings that are not in use.
Some are beautiful buildings with a long history, but never maintained. This led to a situation where roofs have been removed and everything that is useful, stripped. In addition, nature is taking its course with weeds and trees overgrowing these buildings, which again left a bad taste in my mouth. These buildings should be demolished and removed or properly managed.
As the train made its way through and past several small towns, another brick hit me between the eyes, which brings me to issue number four and that is the neglect of graveyards.
We passed graveyards that had no fences; cattle were grazing among the grave sites, since the grass was nearly a meter tall.
If readers wonder why this is important, I want to remind them that graveyards are also part of what cities and towns have to offer and serve as attractions.
A good example is that in Paris, France, one of the top five tourist attractions is a graveyard. Many tourists travel to visit sites of family, well-known people or because of interesting stories associated with the graveyard or specific graves.
In addition, grave sites have always been important (sacred) for Africans and Westerners alike, but this disrespect is just unacceptable.
Again it reflects a lack of management. Tourism role-players have a responsibility to remind government agencies at different levels of the role they play in making tourism work.
If we cannot manage the things that we are responsible for, how on earth will we be able to grow tourism and create the jobs that we so desperately need?
About the Author: Professor Melville Saayman is currently director of the research focus area TREES (Tourism Research in Economic Environs and Society) at the North-West University (Potchefstroom Campus) in South Africa. He has served on numerous tourism related boards as a director, both locally and internationally. He became the first National Research Foundation (NRF) rated researcher in tourism in South Africa. From his pen, numerous leisure and tourism books (20), scientific articles (110), technical reports (300) and in-service training manuals (8) have been published. He was supervisor and promoter to 80 master’s and doctoral students and he has also presented 85 papers at international conferences.
For more information visit www.nwuexperts.co.za