BALITO, South Africa — As the trend toward authentic, experiential tourism has been growing exponentially around the world in recent years, Africa has seen a strong demand for cultural tourism. But as more and more tourists seek a glimpse of the "real Africa," controversy is growing over the question of how authentic these experiences can really be even in more remote parts of a continent that is rapidly modernizing.
Chris Roche, marketing director for Wilderness Safaris, said that as more guests seek authentic cultural experiences, either in the form of an event or something entirely random and ad hoc, "the crux is that the experience [be] authentic and unique, never contrived, staged, performed, etc."
What makes those criteria important, she said, is that "in an increasingly homogenous world, it is valuable and increasingly desirable for people to be exposed to cultures, customs, foods, traditions, dress, dance and languages that they wouldn't encounter on CNN, MTV or a fashionable high street."
It is not easy to offer clients a real experience that corresponds to their preconceived idea of "authentic."
According to Boundless Journeys spokeswoman Karen Cleary, authentic is a difficult word to define in the context of tourism.
"I think when most people say 'authentic' in terms of cultural travel experiences, they mean 'traditional,' with the implication that the lives of the people they are visiting remain unchanged by the modern world," she said. "Unless you go far off the beaten path, this doesn't really exist in many places in Africa, especially places where travelers have been for decades."
Kenneth Firestone, the international representative for Zinga African Safaris, agreed, reporting that tourists are often shocked and disappointed when they see a traditionally dressed Masai pull a cellphone from under their colorful wraps.
"They had the expectation to see the Masai culturally freeze-dried in time and space," Firestone said. "Seeing a Masai with a cellphone seems inauthentic and culturally contaminated by the West."
Firestone asserted that any tourist who nostalgically longs to see the 19th century image of the Masai warrior is being as unrealistic as a foreign visitor to America expecting to encounter men wearing stovepipe hats and speaking and looking like Abraham Lincoln.
"In reality, there is no 'original Masai,'" he said. "The Masai 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 Masai know where there is water to graze their herd, stay in touch with other Masai villages and family members, connect with animal traders and alert park rangers of poachers."
Objectifying people and culture
Cultural villages — museums that showcase the different tribes and offer entertainment such as tribal dances — are one option for travelers who wish to learn about African cultures. However, Firestone maintains that this kind of tourism — camera-toting tourists snapping pictures of exotic-looking humans as a souvenir to send back home — reduces the person that is being photographed to an animal at the zoo.
"There is no effort from the tourists to get to know their host," he said. "In fact, they don't take the humanity of their hosts seriously. They don't view them as meaningful. The guests stay at a safe distance from their hosts, physical and symbolically, with a camera creating a barrier between them."
Professor Melville Saayman, director of a research unit, Tourism in Economic Environs and Society, at the North-West University in South Africa, agreed that these kinds of cultural opportunities are packaged for tourists and are often done in a manner that serves as entertainment rather than authentic education.
"In other words, it has more to do with cultural dances and traditional clothing, which is a very small part of any culture," he said. "In these cases, the traveler is being reduced to a mere spectator."
Sean Anderson, managing director for the Encounter Mara Safari Camp, said that, in fact, most village visits in the Masai Mara are tourist traps that welcome droves of daily visitors. Even so, he said, sometimes villages can offer a true experience.
"Our guests pay at the camp before going to the village, and no money changes hands at the village, no souvenirs are sold, and no show is put on for the visitors, apart from a traditional welcome song upon arrival. Once at the village, guests simply talk to the families with the help of our translating Masai guide and find out how they live, what challenges they face, how the conservancy has impacted their lives and what matters to them in their lives. Visitors and residents in the village learn from each other and laugh at the differences in their cultures."
In fact, not everyone in the travel industry views these experiences as cynical, inauthentic commercialization.
For Kathy Bergs, general manager of Fair Trade Tourism, the villages provide value in that they offer an educational experience for travelers who want to learn more about the different tribes within a country.
"I believe that cultural villages can play a role in educating tourists about the architecture, art, food, music, dance, customs and folklore of a culture and as such can also be a good thing," she said.
Sue Snyman, program director for Children in the Wilderness, agreed that cultural villages offer a chance to raise awareness and increase people's knowledge about other cultures in a setting that can, if managed correctly, prevent the commodification of culture.
"There are examples of authentic cultural experiences in villages that have a low tourist volume," Snyman said. And even places that attract large numbers of tourists, she said, offer "elements of an authentic cultural experience."
Off the beaten track
Most Africa travel experts agree that for a true cultural encounter, travelers should move away from their role as a spectator and engage in an exchange.
Firestone said that tour operators can achieve an exchange by involving and engaging clients in the construction of their own experience before it begins so that they feel empowered and invested in their upcoming cultural experience.
"Tribal encounters are authentic interactions in which both guest and host are spontaneously involved in the life of the community as it is," he said. "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."
Frank Glettenberg, managing director of Kuoni Private Safaris, said that authentic encounters with African tribes are rarely possible at the major tourist sites, so travelers will have to veer off the beaten track in their quest for authenticity.
"General rule here would be: The easier the accessibility and the more comfortable the encounter, the less authentic it likely is," he said. But he is also convinced that the effort is worth it.
"To learn more about an alien culture can be a very enriching experience for visitors to Africa," Glettenberg said. "Visitors might be challenged in their beliefs and might be left changed after such an encounter."
But Glettenberg also understands the desire of certain travelers to maintain a reasonable level of comfort on their journeys, and cultural centers and villages along the main tourist routes tend to offer easy access, clean toilets, English-speaking staff and shopping facilities while enabling tourists to get at least a glimpse of the culture.
On the other hand, he said, "To immerse oneself deeper into a culture usually means investing more time, sacrificing some comforts and possibly communicating only via a translator."
Karen Cleary, spokeswoman for Boundless Journeys, said that very often tourists can have the most enriching cultural experience simply by taking the time to visit with a local shop owner.
"Asking your guide to stop the vehicle so that you can simply walk around a modern African village can be an enriching cultural experience and one that perhaps even more authentically highlights the differences between a typical African life and a typical North American life," Cleary said. "When you meet people, be friendly, be curious and ask questions."
Anderson agreed that the most authentic and memorable experiences at the camp are the spontaneous exchanges between travelers and staff. He cited this example: "We once had a guest stay with us from the United Kingdom who was a professional opera singer. I asked if he would be willing to sing around our fireplace after dinner, and after he obliged, we invited our on-duty Masai staff to join us for the impromptu performance.
"I will never forget the look of utter wonder on our Masai team members' faces as he launched into a classical opera piece under the big African sky. Our staff was captivated, to say the least, and I am certain they have never heard anything like it before.
"The evening got even better as, after the cheers died down to our visitor's solo, our staff offered to reciprocate with a Masai traditional song. They were not to be outdone by a guest in their homeland, and they sang and danced with remarkable passion, which surely cannot be replicated by a paid group of dancers coming into a large safari lodge dancing for hundreds of camera-laden tourists on a nightly basis."
A township experience is another great way to meet the modern local population and have a meaningful cultural encounter with modern-day Africa.
According to Cleary, simply visiting a poor area to gape at the difficult living conditions is voyeuristic and, at its worst, demeaning. But she said a tour through Soweto, particularly with a local guide who grew up there, can provide context to important moments in history and can connect travelers with the reality of life for many people in Africa.
It can also provide a bit of local commerce if a guide knows where to take clients for a drink or a bite to eat or to shop for a handcrafted gift, she said.
According to Paul Miedema, owner of Calabash Tours in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, there is often a lot of first-world anxiety associated with visiting poor areas.
However, Miedema said, if travelers truly want to understand the culture of South Africa, a visit to the poorer townships is a must, since more than 75% of the population in Port Elizabeth, where Calabash Tours operates, lives in the townships.
"A massive part of our history is tied up in the townships," he said. "We want to give people a valuable insight of how urban cities are changing as a result of the legacy of apartheid. We can't talk about housing development and the positive things if we don't show it in the townships. We can't write the townships out of the history of this city. How can we offer a city tour and exclude it?"
Miedema said that it is debatable whether township tours offer a truly authentic experience.
"The question of authenticity is a complicated one," he said. "I think the best we can strive for is perceived authenticity. There is this almost naive requirement from many people now for everything to be authentic. But cultural tourism will always have an element of being contrived. It might not be a Disneyland-type dancing show; it might be about taking visitors into areas where people are going about their own business and daily life. However, the minute you take people into that environment, authenticity is lost."
Saayman said that whether or not an experience is authentic, by whatever measurement, township tourism and cultural tourism generally greatly benefit both the communities and the tourists.
"I am still of the view that cultural tourism, and specifically township tourism, is an important part of our tourism product," Saayman said. "Many tourists would like to experience it, and those who have experienced it enjoyed it."