/ 25 February 2008

Tourist guides tap rich vein in Gauteng

Tourist guides from across Gauteng gathered under a hot marquee for the International Tourist Guides’ Day at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg last week — and, for a change, were on the receiving end of an educational tour.

“We are who we are through others,” were the words of Lungi Morrison, of the Gauteng Tourism Authority (GTA), on Thursday. “Tourist guides are repositories of knowledge.”

Guides play an important economic role. Tourists visiting South Africa on holiday need to be shown around and, in the business sector, guides often take clients on tours.

Their role is highlighted internationally on February 21 every year, International Tourist Guides’ Day, as well as conferences held by the World Federation of Tourist Guides every two years across the world.

At the guides’ gathering, the federation’s Jenny Briscoe joked that many “youngsters are confused when they say they would like to be tour guides”, adding: “I have to keep telling them you don’t want to be a tour guide but rather a tourist guide. A tour guide is a book and a tourist guide is the person giving the tours.”

To mark guides’ day in Johannesburg, hundreds of guides were treated to a tour of the old women’s and men’s prisons in the Constitutional Hill precinct. The guides were shepherded through the cells and courtyards of the historic jails where Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Albertina Sisulu, among others, were detained.

Mbali Zwane (28), a guide in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, said: “I’ve been only doing this for a while, but it’s good that we are appreciated on a day like today. I love my job and I love meeting new people. Sophiatown has so much to see and there is so much history.”

Sophiatown — famous for writers such as Can Temba and musicians like Hugh Masekela — was destroyed by the apartheid government in 1955 and replaced by a whites-only suburb named Triomf. It was officially renamed Sophiatown in 2006 by the present government.

Zwane said: “You have to have a good memory. I have to remember dates, names, places and not only of Sophiatown. Sometimes they ask about Soweto or other areas. I have to keep learning since I am new.”

In 2006, about eight million tourists visited South Africa; roughly four million of these passed through Gauteng. Khumbu Sithole, senior research manager at the GTA, said “people think that with the international airport [OR Tambo in Johannesburg] it’s just a reflection of the number that stop over and get connecting flights to else where in the country”.

However, these statistics actually translate into “20-million bed-nights in Gauteng”, he said. “In other words, people do not come to Gauteng only as a passing point but actually stay over.”

This is despite the fact that Johannesburg is seen as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with 223 assault cases, among other violent crimes, reported last year, according to information released by the Institute for Security Studies.

Why, then, do tourists visit Johannesburg?

Typically, they will be whisked to a northern-suburbs hotel from the airport, and will probably book a tour to Soweto, Sophiatown or the Cradle of Humankind, which is situated in the north-west corner of Gauteng and covers an area of 47 000ha. It was declared a world heritage site in 1999 for its rich diversity of fossils.

Many tourists also seem to crave an “African” experience, visiting craft markets in Newtown and Rosebank.

Tourist guides and agencies therefore need to cater for tourists with a variety of interests streaming into Gauteng every day.

There are almost 2 800 registered tourist guides in Gauteng, said Mpho Moeti, provincial Registrar of the GTA. “Some earn about R500 a tour. This depends if they are freelancing, have their own company or are working for a bigger company. Some are also formally employed by these big companies and others are self-employed — they can work for themselves and are not solely dependent on big companies.”

Guides need to have expert knowledge of the sites where they are employed as well as personal skills. Muzi Mandla of the Tourism, Hospitality and Sports Education and Training Authority (Theta) said that guides need to have “the passion, the charismatic character and the warmth — people skills which you are either born with or can learn over time, but if you don’t have it, you just don’t”.

Guides can start out by working for a big company to learn the trade, but should then “start their own business after where they have freedom and room to be creative”, added Moeti.

Visitors to South Africa want an “authentic Africa, a lifestyle and an experience”, said Nonnie Khubeka, head of marketing and promoting at the GTA.

“There are so many opportunities for tourist guides in South Africa, not only for 2010 but [also] for further than that,” she said. “Gauteng has an untapped market. People coming in for economic reasons also want to tour Gauteng, and tourist guides must look into this market.”

Said tourist guide Zwane: “I will keep doing this job. I meet new people, I learn all the time about other cultures and I see our history making a difference on other people’s lives.”