Turning terror into tourism

Is tourism earning its reputation as the world’s peace industry by turning the architecture of terror into slick holiday resorts? Eddie Koch reports

First it was the penal colony on Robben Island, then the Old Fort at Constitution Hill. Now a decaying army base on the edge of the Blyde River Canyon, in Mpumalanga, has become the latest set of buildings to be transformed from a place of oppression into a thriving tourism resort.

And, if developments in Germany are anything to go by, it seems that tourism planners from both the private and public sectors in South Africa are following an international trend. German developers are converting a Nazi retreat on the Baltic island of Rugen into a youth camp capable of hosting 5 000 backpackers from around the globe at any one time.

The former Bourke’s Luck Military Base, once a place where the apartheid army trained dogs to track down insurgents fighting against white domination in Southern Africa, is being converted from a concentration-camp type complex into a new Afro-themed hotel and a training centre where overseas and local students can learn the art of being hospitable.

The Blyde River Canyon, South Africa’s third most popular destination for foreign tourists, does not yet have a hotel on its rim big enough to accommodate large organised tours. A consortium of developers, including Tourvest and two hotel owners in Mpumalanga, have taken advantage of this gap and is building a 150-bed hotel on the edge of the canyon in front of the old army base at Bourke’s Luck.

If designs are anything to go by, the new hotel will hide the scar that was left by the army base on the canyon’s skyline with a set of buildings that will blend into the landscape and reflect the North Sotho and Pedi cultures of the people who live in the area. Construction is due to start before June.

And, in a related development, the local municipality has entered into discussions with the African Global Academy to convert the old army barracks into a tourism training centre for international and local students.

The academy, which has close links with South African tourism resort developer Mantis Holdings, plans to set up a training school that will instruct its students in all aspects of the hospitality industry. For every 10 international students who come into the centre, a bursary will be provided for local residents to participate in the programme.

“Our aim is for international and local students to meet in a very beautiful place and come to learn about each other’s lives while learning how to operate all aspects of hotels and other tourism businesses,” said Moshe Mashego, mayor of the local Thaba Chweu municipality.

A global trend

The Bourke’s Luck development mirrors events in the German tourism industry, reports Steve Rose.

Binz, on the island of Rugen, is one of the best examples of a classic German tourism resort. Strung along a wide Baltic beach are grand, turn-of-the-century spa resorts, white wooden guesthouses and modern chain hotels.

Stroll north up the beach for an hour, though, and you come to a different coastal utopia. Partly obscured by pine trees lies the hulking carcass of Prora, known locally as “The Colossus” and built by Adolf Hitler as a Nazi leisure centre.

It consists of eight identical, rectangular six-storey buildings, three of which are now in ruins, curving around the bay in a neat arc.

Prora was designed to accommodate 20 000 visitors in 10 000 identical rooms. Today, Prora’s “Block Three” contains the island’s largest discotheque, a youth hostel and two museum complexes.

“There is no reason to conserve this time as great, but we have to understand what happened because it’s happening again today. We have a government that is corrupt and does things which 90% of the people don’t like,’’ said Museum Prora’s director, Professor Joachim Wernicke.

“The past is less of a problem than the present,” adds Wernicke. “Seventeen thousand young people move from this area every year. Here in the north we have 25% unemployment. In many places there are only old people. It’s like a desert.”

His solution is to convert Prora into Oneworldcamp: a global summer camp hosting 5 000 young people which, he argues, could be financed by the cost of one Eurofighter.

“It’s still a very sensitive discussion. A lot of people don’t like the idea that Prora is again becoming a holiday resort.

“That’s the way human beings are: they think the fascism is in the building, but that’s not really true. It’s in their heads. Ideology is not something you can really feel in a building. What you feel is architecture.” — Â

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