Township tourism can drive economy

IT sounded like a crazy idea. Themba Ndlovu, an enterprising young man who unfortunately is now late, had an incredible idea to launch a project he called Spankie Tours.

The year was 1997 and his plan was to set up an indigenous touring company.

What was unique was that he planned to hire “emergency taxis”, battered Peugeot 404 station wagons, the mode of transport at the time, to ferry tourists to the townships of Bulawayo to “witness and experience the life of the ordinary people”.

He had an elaborate route that would take in the sights and sounds of Zimbabwe’s second-largest city’s colourful western suburbs.

There would be stopovers at specific homes and landmarks along the way where clients would sample the delights and everyday activities of township dwellers.

Regrettably, Themba’s dream was stillborn and never saw the light of day. The young man could not even convince the local authorities to buy into his innovative idea, let alone get the support of the banks and worse still, the government.

Fast forward almost two decades and the government of Zimbabwe through the Tourism ministry and the ZTA realise that the concept of township tourism is worth a shot.

The concept was launched amidst pomp and fanfare in October 2012 in Harare’s Highfield township with the view of promoting historical and cultural tourism in local communities through the marketing of significant landmarks.

In this case, Highfields being the home of the liberation struggle. Bulawayo would be a gold mine for this form of tourism with the former townships of Makokoba, Pelandaba, Luveve, Tshabalala, Pumula and Mpopoma being cultural treasure troves. We are not forgetting the newer suburbs of Nkulumane, Gwabalanda, Magwegwe North and West, among others.

Township tourism emerged in the ’90s in the metropolitan cities of developing countries where tourists were encouraged to visit the disadvantaged areas of the cities and see how the local people lived. They became popular in Brazil, India and South Africa where they are packaged as authentic, interactive and educational in nature. Culture is the dominant attraction of township tourism.

It is easy to understand why government has taken a keen interest in innovative tourism concepts.

Tourism is recognised as a key driver of the economy in Zimbabwe. It has been targeted as strategic in the country’s drive for economic growth and development.

Zimbabwe, having gone through a dark period in its history culminating in the collapse of the local currency in 2008 and numerous travel warnings issued by major Western countries against it, has become critical to change negative perceptions about the country being an unsafe tourist destination.

The result has been an aggressive destination marketing regime spearheaded by Tourism minister Walter Mzembi, Karikoga Kaseke and the team at the ZTA.

However, there has been an acceptance that in order for the country to attract a fair share of tourists to its borders, there was a need for a paradigm shift in the way the Zimbabwean tourism product is packaged.

A study by Sarudzai Mutana and Alice Zinyemba in 2013 reveals that despite Zimbabwe’s heavy reliance on natural and heritage resources, a new breed of tourist now wanted to have a more intimate relationship with the communities in the countries they visited.

It’s no longer the thrill of seeing the Big Five, but rather “to meet real people, witness how they live and experience their current state of development and cultural heritage”, write Mutana and Zinyemba in their paper.

It is now accepted that mass tourism is no longer competitive since discerning “cultural” tourists have been known to be higher spenders. Hence the need to repackage tourism products in order to cater for this new kind of tourist.

Culture-based tourism such as township tours are a better alternative to the traditional nature-based tourism because it has been found to be more sustainable, cannot be substituted and is participatory particularly for the communities being visited.

Western tourists are searching for unique experiences that are personalised and offer high quality service delivery and the bonus is that the local residents also benefit promoting sustainable development, say tourism officials.

Therefore, it is important that township tours be well organised and marketed. Areas where visitors are directed to should be well selected in advance along with pre-arranged activities such as cultural performances and displays, short walks, tours of pre-
selected homes, meals and refreshments at local taverns.

Opportunities for marketers range from playing an advisory in the formulation and implementation of a broader destination marketing strategy, to assisting small players in the township tourism matrix to package, brand and market their tourism products.

In this way the frustration of the late Themba Ndlovu of Spankie Tours will not be repeated and entrepreneurs like him will relish operating a lucrative business providing support services for a potentially lucrative township tourism industry.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel in as far as township tourism is concerned. The Soweto model gives the local entrepreneurs plenty of lessons on how to operate profitable and sustainable township tourism businesses.

As Bulawayo celebrates 120 years of existence this year, it would be worth exploring new ways of reviving the local economy and putting money in people’s pockets.

 Lenox Mhlanga is a communications and media consultant as well as an accredited trainer.
He can be contacted at

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