There is more to a glass of wine than to a cup of coffee
A five-day sojourn to the wonderful winelands of the Western Cape is an invigorating trip. But as the author of “Undercover Economist” points out frequently in his brief treatise on scarcity and marginal production, wherever one may go, or sit, the basics that make the economy roll, are always present.
This latest trip provided me with opportunities galore to don my double-O darkness, and just sit and observe. And perhaps the most striking observation is that the Cape lives and breathes tourism.
When one considers the depth in the Cape’s tourism industry, it gives an idea of the huge strides we must still take to develop this key industry. Granted, Cape Town is a big place and the population of the peninsula together with the developed areas north and east of South Africa’s mother city, counts many millions. But it can not be denied that what draws the visitors, also by the millions, are the rich history and heritage of its unique winelands, juxtaposed between the mountains and the sea.
While enjoying the scenic beauty the analytic cog never stopped churning. The colonial history of the Cape is approaching 400 years so it is obvious that it offers a complex fabric of interwoven colonial agendas, independence agendas, and finally of liberation agendas. But Cape Town is also half the seat of the South African government so there is more than enough politics to keep those so inclined, occupied. Interestingly enough, I did not encounter the crowds in the Parliament Gardens, or at the old Fort, or even at Nelson Mandela’s statue outside the renamed Drakenstein Correctional Facility. The tourists are found where they can have a good time, and this is nowhere more obvious than in the wider Western Cape. The only exception are the well-supported tours to Robben Island, but having spoken to a number of first-time visitors, the same sentiment always surfaces: “Robben Island was nice, and informative, and we enjoyed visiting the quarters where one of the world’s greatest modern icons lived, but we will not go again.
For the rest, it is also fairly obvious where the largest concentration of tourists are. They are either by the sea, then mostly on the verandah of some upmarket restaurant, or they are in any of the hundreds of fancy hotels, or at the waterfront, but mostly they are in the winelands, and there the expectations and actual experience beat all other sight-seeing venues by a mile.
In short, tourist do not specifically go for sight-seeing. This is regarded as a bonus, and the history of any particular venue may be interesting, but that is the five-minute stopover on the itinerary. The main drawing card is the places where they can have a good time, and at such places the number of one-night visitors is incredible.
I met several people who said they are off to this or that game park, or wilderness lodge, but then only for a very brief visit of one, two or three nights, never more. But their systematic tour of the winelands keep them busy for a week, or two or three.
This immediately indicates that we are at a major disadvantage. Namibia offers arguably one of the most authentic safari environments anywhere in Africa, but the number of tourists interested in the wild outdoors to rough it, is actually quite small. They like the entertainment of seeing all the game, especially the so-called Big Five, but once you have seen one, you have seen them all.
Unless of course, you have a special interest like a photographer, but these types unfortunately do not constitute the large, lucrative sources of tourist spend.
The average tourist wants to enjoy him or herself. Nowhere is this basic fact more pronounced than in the Western Cape.
So how do we turn hundred of miles of uninhabited wild bush, into a place where tourists can hang out, and have a ball?
The answer to that riddle is not easy but I think a place to start would be to focus more on cultural tourism than on the safari version. For that the visitor wants a selection of hundreds of establishments, not just one or two. Tourism is about large numbers despite our popular notion that we want to keep the bush pristine. This only works for less than 5% of tourists. The rest wants entertainment, relaxation, comfort, luxury, all the conveniences they are used to, and finally, a nice splash after hours.
We are only now beginning to cotton on to this very basic tourist truth. Meanwhile we compete with undercut prices in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania without once asking ourselves, why is the Cape so popular. I think this is the direction to which we must start channelling our minds.
We can not offer a Cape Town, nor do we have the green mountains or the lush valleys, but we have many other attractions no other destination can offer. What we lack is offering the “good time.”