Mainly a service-based industry, the travel and tourism sector boasts some of the most hospitable people who inform perceptions of South Africa having the friendliest of locals. The idea that the industry can create more than 1.4 million jobs in the face of rife unemployment might seem drastically ambitious on paper, until you meet the hospitable service providers who are holding the South African tourism flag high.
The energy in the room at the Lilizela Awards was electrified with the passion that is the driving force for most of the service providers. Talking to finalists and winners, one couldn’t help but feel the enthusiasm of the finalists and winners and notice how their eyes light up when they talk about the services they offer. Even Leanne Manas, who was co-hosting the event, noted that in all the many events she’s hosted, she hadn’t before experienced so many people who are so passionate about the work that they do, all in one room.
While South Africa has beautiful destinations to show off to the world, it is also competing with the global market, especially in attracting international visitors and tourists. So there is pressure to create uniquely South African experiences that will draw people to visit this part of the continent and to keep returning, a demand that seems to be steadily fulfilled by innovative ideas that are constantly entering the tourism market. A lot of the passion for the many entrepreneurs is rooted in creating new experiences that draw from the unique climate of South Africa or those packaging uniquely South African experiences into tourism products that offer authentic and unforgettable experiences to both local and international visitors.
4 Roomed eKasi Culture & Foods is a township-based restaurant in Khayelitsha, owned and run by former Masterchef contestant Abigail Mbali. The business was awarded the national Lilizela Award for Visitor Experience in Lifestyle and Culture, an idea Mbali conceptualised during her time on Masterchef.
“To stay in the competition, I needed to think of something purposeful to keep me motivated. So I decided to move to the township and do something unique around food that would bring about an influx in tourism, promote business in the area and uplift the standard of services in the townships,” she explains.
Abigail is a trained dental technologist who has practised for 17 years. She started 4 Roomed eKasi Culture & Foods as a food truck stop in 2014, and in 2016 she resigned to focus her energy and experience solely on the restaurant. “What drove me to pursue food was that I realised there was a lot to be done in fusing food and tourism in our townships,” she adds.
The idea behind 4 Roomed eKasi Culture & Foods was inspired by the popular four-room houses which were built when a lot of townships throughout the country were being established. Abigail was born and raised in one herself, in Gugulethu. “We were four families living in a four-room home back in the 70s, when some of us were growing up to the familiar smell of a teargas. What stands out about those days for me is that we always came home to a safe haven in the four-room home,” explains Abigail.
She and her partner are now moving from their house in Melkbosstrand to Khayelitsha, where they foresee more possibilities for the business. They have already started planting herbs and vegetables in their backyard in crates, as Abigail is adamant about encouraging people to grow their own produce.
Her business has since been featured in publications from the UK, Netherlands, Germany, the United States and others. She spent two weeks cooking in Switzerland, where she got to share South African township cuisine with the world.
Another establishment that won the National Lilizela Award in the Service Excellence category for 3-Star Backpacking and Hostelling and is Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers, which also takes pride in showcasing township tourism to the rest of the world.
Thami Khumalo, who went up to collect the awards with Lungile Mbangula, said: “What we are doing on a daily basis is changing stereotypes of what people think about Soweto. We are working towards opening people up to the idea of visiting townships and inviting them to open up to Soweto through a fun bike tour where people get to experience Soweto beyond stereotypes.”
Located in the heart of Soweto, Lebo’s is within walking distance of Vilakazi Street and the Hector Pieterson Museum. There is an outdoor restaurant, a campsite and various tours plus they also offer services to people who are not staying at the hostel. The tours include a complimentary lunch with a traditional home-cooked meal such a potjie, pap, chicken feet and there’s Mqombothi tasting too.
The backpacker is owned by Lebo, whom Thami says has played a big role in promoting tourism in the area. He started the business after seeing busses flocking into Soweto with loads of people who were meant to experience the township. As a local, he grew concerned with how quick and inauthentic those trips were. So he started off the initiative by opening up his grandparents’ home, with the hope of establishing a hub where visitors could have an authentic experience while also getting the opportunity to explore various aspects of Soweto.
Speaking of uniquely South African experiences, one has to mention the Tintswalo property group which won two National Lilizela Awards for their four- and five-star game lodges. Tintswalo has a variety of upmarket properties that draw from the unique South African climate to offer visitors high-end experiences.
“We thought it was important for us to offer upmarket Cape and bush experiences, because when someone comes into South Africa, the Cape and the bush always stand out,” says Gay Corbett, who owns the properties with her husband Ernest. They’ve just established another property called Tintswalo at Boulders in Simon’s Town near the penguins, adding yet another unique offering that draws on the surroundings.
Another one of their properties is Lapalala at Tintswalo, which is said to be the only reserve that’s completely self-sustainable. It is an all solar-powered property with game viewing. “We are excited for what’s happening in the tourism industry and are more excited for its future. Tourism is the future of this country and certainly one of the most important industries, and we are delighted to be part of that movement,” adds Corbett.
Many of the winners and finalists echoed their optimism about the industry. Many of the service providers are aware of the stiff competition and seem even more determined in the face of that competition to make themselves stand out. Events like the Lilizela Awards do play a role in encouraging a healthy spirit of competition, starting at a provincial level all the way to the nationals, where the best of best are given their due recognition.
“Recognition is important, not just in terms of regulating the industry but in terms of encouraging people to do more in showcasing the best of what the country has to offer,” said Sisa Ntshona, chief executive of South African Tourism.