How Tourism Can Lead To Rural Regeneration

Creative packaging and marketing of rural tourism attractions can lead to job creation and rural regeneration, writes
Prof. Melville Saayman.

Earlier this year, whilst doing research in one of the national parks, I was confronted by poverty and the impact thereof. While buying groceries for the research team in a nearby town, a young boy stepped towards me begging for money. In the background, other kids were waving at me indicating that I should not give him anything. As I got back to the car, the others indicated that he uses the money to buy a drug called TIK (Methamphetamine). He must have been 15 or 16 years of age, and will most probably not see the age of 21.

This is the case of many kids in rural towns in South Africa, and made me realise that as a tourism industry, especially in rural areas, we need to take responsibility and make a difference.

Many rural towns are under growing pressure due to:
• Urbanisation;
•Lack of basic services;
• Bad municipal management;
• Changes in agriculture due to a change from family-owned to commercially-owned farming;
• Poor land use management;
• Inadequate planning;
• Environmental degradation;
• High levels of unemployment and low income households;
• High leakages; and
• Degradation of infrastructure.

However, most small towns in places such as the Karoo and other rural areas in the Northern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, North West, Limpopo and Eastern Cape have much to offer tourists, such as historical buildings and sites, cultural tourism, ecotourism and agritourism to name a few. Through tourism one could not only create jobs, but careers for people and most importantly create wealth.

Wealth creation leads to job creation, and not the other way around, which is something that few people understand. The reason I stress careers rather than just jobs is that a career requires training and development and it is my belief that the only way to reduce poverty is to empower people.

Which brings me to the opportunities that are available in order to regenerate rural areas.

First of all, like any successful business venture, you need a champion to kick start the regeneration of small towns. Then do an inventory of what is available, and most towns have a few citizens who know exactly what is available and the stories that form part of the heritage products. This will form the bases of the marketing drive, if it has not been done before.
Focus on unique products and attractions and be creative in order to package what is available in an attractive manner. Once again I stress the concept of being creative. I have unfortunately seen so many strategies done at national, provincial and local level by large consulting firms, and have to admit that they showed little to no creativity. This, however, is only one part of the story.

The second part is the part that can create jobs and really make a significant contribution to grow and regenerate the local economy and town in general. It is here that creativity really becomes paramount and requires an integration of what the town and the region have to offer.

Here are just a few examples:

The first possibility is to marry the towns’ tourism potential with agritourism. The latter is most probably one of the largest underutilised growth areas in the tourism industry. The Western Cape has followed this strategy with great success, especially if one looks at integrating wine, milk (cheese) and berry farming with tourism. This had huge spinoffs for smaller towns that became touristic towns. The Red Berry Farm outside George and Fairview near Paarl are just two examples of agritourism in action.


In the second possibility, the focus is on arts and culture and how this can transform a rural tourism town into something exciting. One of the best examples is Clarens in the Free State where various artists live and work and has subsequently become a top tourist destination.

A third possibility is to focus on activities, and the one that I am using as an example is fly fishing. Once again we have a wonderful success story with Dullstroom in Mpumalanga, where the availability of trout became the foundation of a tourist destination, with a huge spillover effect in town.

These are just a few possibilities that prove how sleepy towns can be regenerated to become top tourist destinations. Most of these towns also use festivals to ensure that they retain or grow their markets. We have so many existing case studies to work from and much potential in rural areas, maybe it is time that we start to focus stronger on these areas and grow tourism where it is really needed in order to continue to address poverty and create hope for young people that desperately need it. I strongly believe that this is an underdeveloped area in South Africa that can offer domestic and international tourists something new and exciting.

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. From his pen, numerous leisure and tourism books (20), scientific articles (110), technical reports (300) and in-service training manuals (8) have been published.
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