Africa has experienced a strong demand for cultural tourism during the past few years, as the trend towards authentic, experiential tourism has been growing exponentially worldwide. More and more tourists are requesting to meet ethnic groups during their Africa experience in order to get a glimpse of the “real Africa.” But how authentic are these experiences in an increasingly modern Africa?
Professor Melville Saayman, director of the research entity Tourism in Economic Environs and Society at the North-West University in South Africa, explains that the cultural opportunities that are available and packaged for tourists are often done in a manner that serves as entertainment for tourists rather than educating tourists in an authentic way. He says: “In other words, it has more to do with cultural dances and traditional clothing, which is a very small part of any culture.”
Kenneth Firestone, the international representative for Zinga African Safaris, agrees and says tourists are often shocked and disappointed when they see a traditionally dressed Maasai pull a cellphone out from under his or her colorful wraps. He explains: “They had the expectation to see the Maasai culturally ‘freeze dried’ in time and space. Seeing a Maasai with a cellphone seems inauthentic and culturally contaminated by the West.”
Firestone adds that the tourist who nostalgically longs to see the 19th century image of the Maasai warrior is as unrealistic as a foreign visitor to America expecting to see men wearing stovepipe hats and looking like Abraham Lincoln. He says: “In reality, there is no ‘original Maasai’. The Maasai are not a cultural museum, nor do they want to be confined to being a photo opportunity for a tourist. In fact, a cellphone enables them to let other Maasai know where there is water to graze their herd, stay in touch with other Maasai villages and family members, connect with animal traders and alert park rangers to poachers.”
Even in Namibia, where the conservancies are a shining example of how to attain true cultural tourism, there are a few examples of artificial cultural experiences, admits Gitta Paetzold, CEO of the Hospitality Association of Namibia. She explains some of the Himba people, for instance, have opted to move to cities and towns like Windhoek and Swakopmund to engage with tourists. “People have been discussing whether this is in fact right. But then again, there is freedom of movement in our country, so if the Himba feel this is what they want to do, to take their culture to where the masses are, that is up to them,” Paetzold says.
However, although the polished and staged cultural performances and encounters will rarely represent a truly authentic experience, this doesn’t mean that true and authentic cultural tourist experiences are not available. Frank Glettenberg, managing director at Kuoni Private Safaris, explains: “General rule here would be: the easier accessible and the more comfortable the encounter, the less authentic it likely is. To learn more about an alien culture can be a very enriching experience for visitors to Africa. Visitors might be challenged in their beliefs and might be left changed after such an encounter.”
Glettenberg adds that cultural centers and villages along the main tourist routes offer easy access, clean toilets, English-speaking staff and shopping facilities; these experiences enable tourists to get a glimpse of the culture. He adds, however, “To immerse oneself deeper into a culture usually means investing more time, sacrificing some comforts and possibly communicating only via a translator.”
In order to offer a true cultural encounter, tour operators should involve and engage the client in the construction of their own experience so that they feel empowered and invested in their upcoming cultural experience, explains Firestone. He says: “Tribal encounters are authentic interactions in which both guest and host are spontaneously involved in the life of the community as it is. Time is set aside for the visitor group to meet with the tribal elders and community members so all parties can ask and answer questions. This mutual and reciprocal give-and-take allows for everyone to get to know one another on an equal footing in which power is shared between the guest and host.”
Saayman adds it is extremely important for operators that a cultural experience is about the experience and not about being a spectator. He says: “Most of the cultural products currently in South Africa create a spectator vs. performer situation, and tourism is moving much more into something that has to be experienced rather than being an onlooker.”