Dispatch, Southern Africa: A tourism Catch 22


Dispatch, Southern Africa

Travel Weekly's Kenneth Kiesnoski is spending two weeks traveling in South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana. His first dispatch follows.

Arriving in Johannesburg for a one-night layover — en route to a luxury beach resort in Mozambique — I found my preconceived notions of South Africa and the African continent quickly dashed.

As my driver, Frank, took me into the city via superhighway, I was, to my surprise, somewhat disappointed by the view from the passenger seat. I saw neither the wild, untamed South African "veld" of my travel dreams nor the allegedly dangerous urban landscape of Johannesburg's infamous townships that were so "familiar" from decades of news reports.

Rather, what greeted me was a somewhat prosaic panorama of megastores, petrol stations and housing developments.

With Usher's dance hit "Oh My Gosh" blaring from the car radio, I could have been on New York's Long Island Expressway. And given on the British-style traffic signs we passed (and the fact they were posted on the left-hand side of the road) I might have been tooling down London's M1.

Apart from the African National Congress election posters stapled to telephone poles here and there, and the odd billboard in the Afrikaans language, I could have been anywhere in the Western world, and told Frank as much. He agreed, in a lilting, Zulu-accented English. We spent the rest of the short drive debating the perils, and pleasures, of globalization.

The impression was reinforced when I arrived at my hotel for the night, the Protea Fire & Ice. The hotel is located in Melrose Arch, a relatively new, exceedingly posh addition to Johannesburg's collection of well-heeled, well-policed northern suburbs.

In the lobby, hipsters of various nationalities were perched on chairs by Philippe Starck, thumbing their Blackberries and scrolling through their iPads, all to a soundtrack of ambient lounge music. It was a boutique hotel — and a very nice one at that — of the type found in, yes, New York and London ... and Moscow, Shanghai and Rio de Janeiro.

I instantly succumbed to the hotel's comfortable charms, confident that, come morning and my flight to Mozambique, I'd get to see "authentic" Africa — whatever that might be — soon enough.

It was not to be, at least not right away. On my two-hour Federal Air flight from Johannesburg to Vilanculos on the Indian Ocean coast of Mozambique, I was treated to a delightful lunch of chicken crepes, pasta salad and a Cadbury chocolate bar, washed down with coffee served in a china cup and saucer.

As the turboprop swooped down into Vilanculos, I caught glimpses of seemingly well-kept and, to my mind, stereotypically African, round thatched huts that seemed to serve as actual homes. "Ah, Africa, at last," I excitedly thought.

But as the plane rolled to a stop, I noticed the terminal appeared to be brand spanking new, all stainless steel, marble and pristine landscaping. I strolled into a high-tech immigration hall, outfitted with flat-screen TV displays and glistening, spotless floors. The smell of fresh paint still lingered in the air.

The new, orderly Vilanculos Airport terminal had opened barely two weeks before. Portuguese-language banners trumpeted the facility's "modernidade, seguranca e qualidade" (modernity, security and quality). It would certainly put most airports in similarly sized, or even larger, U.S. towns to shame.

I had mixed emotions. I certainly didn't want to see locals or visitors in Mozambique subjected to abject chaos and poverty in some shack of an airport facility. And the tidy terminal did make for another pleasant, albeit short, layover as I waited for my connecting puddle-jumper flight to my island resort.

But I still felt cocooned in First World familiarity. Where was the exoticism, the excitement, the aforementioned and sought-after authenticity and local flavor? There was a soft murmur of African languages around me, broken now and then by more familiar Portuguese. But the place was as modern and antiseptic as a dentist's office.

In the air in Mozambique

At the same, the 21st century American consumer in me won out over the adventurer, subtly taking admitted pleasure and comfort in the sense of order and safety around me as I waited for my flight — particularly given the worldwide U.S. travel alert announced on the news that morning in the wake of the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

No alien danger could lurk in darkened corners in this brightly lit, highly hygienic outpost of modernity. Globalization and homogenization have their advantages, I decided.

So I eased back into a seat near my gate and cracked open the day-old Johannesburg newspaper I'd brought along, to pass the time. Among the many well-written articles I found in that copy of the Sunday Times was a piece by columnist Mondli Makhanya entitled "Will this nation allow its languages to die out — from sheer neglect?"

In it, Makhanya decried that despite legislation enshrining nine African tongues alongside English and Afrikaans as national languages, an increasingly prosperous black South African middle class is abandoning Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho for English — the worldwide lingua franca of business, entertainment and government — in droves. On one hand, who could blame them? Fluency in English is a key to success, on a potentially global scale, and a sign — like gleaming airports and boutique hotels — of prosperity and sophistication.

But at what price? As Makhanya noted, each of the world's 7,000 languages is a treasure trove of cultural knowledge, an irreplaceable key to a particular worldview. The loss, or worse, willful abandonment, of any is a silent tragedy and renders the world a bit poorer.

The benefits of modernization and globalization may be legion, but there's also much to be said for keeping our traditional, regional lifestyles and languages in the mix.

The article got me thinking, as I boarded my plane for my five-star resort: How to balance progress and tradition, specifically in terms of tourism development?

How to bring the people of the Third World the best of the First, and bring First World tourists to experience the Third, without steamrolling over what's authentic, unique and irreplaceable there? Or destroying what makes exotic, developing destinations even worth flying nearly 15 hours to get to in the first place? If all you'll find in Mozambique is shiny, U.S.-style consumerism, why not just head for Orlando instead?

As I spend the next two weeks crossing southern Africa, from Mozambique through South Africa and on to Botswana, I'm eager to see not only how safe, securely packaged, top-shelf or "satisfaction-guaranteed" the continent's tourism products and experiences are, but how (and how well) Africans are maintaining what makes them and their countries unique and special in an increasingly uniform world.

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