Dialogues in Cultural Tourism Pre and Post Covid-19

The most recent STTA Change Makers tweet chat, held on 30th May 2020, sought to discuss the potential of cultural tourism in accelerating recovery post-COVID19 Africa. The discussion had an interactive audience that provided some of the most fascinating highlights relating to cultural tourism as relates to African communities. The topic of discussion was inspired by the fact that traditional knowledge, practices, and land stewardship responsibilities in local cultures play a role in protecting the planet. These protections are the ones that extend not just to lessening climate change, but also in reducing the future effects of pandemics. Indeed, tourism provides endless opportunities to learn about the way other people live, about their society and their traditions.

First off is the brief historical background of cultural tourism that was first recognized as a distinct product in the late 1970s through the grand tours, then developed into a niche product for the well of and the educated through mass tourism in the period of 1980s. Thereafter postmodern tourism set in, characterized by a variety of cultural tourists and cultural products and it is from this that the current cultural tourism is still being shaped and impacted by the coronavirus crisis. Technological changes also add to the impact on cultural tourism. The discussion was guided by four key questions that sought to understand the past, current, and future situations of cultural tourism in Africa. This article is a summary compilation of the audience responses during the chat.

Has cultural tourism been successful in Africa?

Many African destinations that are considered successful in tourism operations have tended to develop the industry narrowly based on wildlife, beach, and business that is facilitated by Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) tourism. One of the main contributing factors to this, especially wildlife tourism is the inheritance of safari tourism by independent states from their colonial states and beach tourism driven by market forces as opposed to its design. One contribution was that cultural tourism has registered growth within the East African region, characterized by the declaration of various cultural sites as World Heritage sites. A diversified culture, with both visible and non-visible aspects, provides a lot of opportunity for the development of this form of tourism.

Among the audiences the better half was in opposition to cultural tourism being successful in Africa, posing the question of what are the parameters of measuring cultural tourism success in Africa. While considering the visible aspects of culture such as festivals that have formed the major indicator for measuring cultural tourism success, the authenticity of the festivals is important. Ceremonial events like the Reed dance Festival, remain authentic because they are not staged for tourism, when an event is staged for tourism it should be considered a cultural show rather than a cultural festival. Community perspectives and attitudes are just some of the important measures of cultural tourism success. This question pointed to the cultures of communities such as the Maasai in both Kenya and Tanzania, the Batwa in Uganda, and the Karamojong as being examples of success in line with authenticity.

What elements of success have been there for cultural tourism in Africa?

Tourism activity brings along financial gain, though this tends to lead to a ripple problem of copying to suit the needs of the tourism markets. A non-visible element of success is the sense of pride by people who feel appreciated for their culture. This has enabled for the revitalization of lost cultures. A case in point being the Rusinga Festival in Kenya that celebrates the cultural heritage of the Abasuba community within the pristine Rusinga Island in Lake Victoria in Kenya. The preservation of traditions of various communities by agencies such as The Bomas of Kenya and Ndere Cultural Center in Uganda has been possible where elements traditions are enacted for education and entertainment tourists.

“Authentic is about ownership of traditions. If a change in culture is driven and owned by a community, then it is authentic. If refinement of practices in culture is driven by external forces, e.g tourism, then it is not authentic”- Judy Kepher Gona, STTA

Additionally, community cultural centers and museums that attract tourists and generate revenue for the host community are also a big part of cultural tourism success. The adoption and design of cultural tourism is an effective means of ensuring community involvement in tourism activities provided there is cultural authenticity. Cultural practices like that of the Imbalu ceremony amongst the Bamasaba/Bagisu tribe in Eastern Uganda was an interesting case in point for this question. The ceremony has been able to attract tourists from around the world that have generated revenue for the local destination community and is still able to retain its cultural authenticity.

What dialogues have dominated cultural tourism pre-COVID-19?

A number of key dialogues majorly revolved around the quality of experience by the host community, cultural representations, commodification of African culture, and inquiries on authenticity in learned culture. These were the dialogues rising before the unprecedented occurrence of coronavirus. Community engagement as being key to achieving sustainability has been a conflicting dialogue on cultural tourism before the crisis.

The discussions had much emphasis on valuing culture, benefits of culture to the community, and the ethics of sharing cultures. One of the participants familiar with destination Uganda pointed out a conflicting case of interest between the Batwa of Semeliki complaining of Bamba reaping from their customs and culture at their expense. He also emphasized on how authenticity should be key in promoting culture as a tourism product by adding, “it is only the local Ankole herdsman who can better tell the stories and traditions of the Ankole cow a compromise would commodification.” On matters relating to cultural tourism dialogues, the concern of investments came up briefly with little emphasis though.

What dialogue on cultural tourism will there post COVID-19?

Cultural tourism is social in many aspects with elements of feel, touch, taste, and does greatly associated with it. The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a new dimension to social interaction and this will form the starting basis of dialogue on cultural tourism and other forms of tourism too after the crisis. Adopting to the anticipated new normal in terms of accommodation, hygiene, and social distancing will be another interesting point of discussion. For instance, post-COVID-19 dialogue on health and safety, and the use of technology on cultural activities will be a key impact talked about. There is the potential emergence of place-based cultural tourism gaining fame to encourage destinations to recognize, protect, and enhance cultural resources within the destination.

Aspects such as festivals to promote cultural diversity and community cohesion will be critical, as they provide varied economic impacts with vulnerabilities to the current crisis. Organizers of cultural festivals will have to rethink how to hold and manage this aspect of cultural tourism in African destinations. Heading further past the crisis, dialogues on product packaging, authenticity, culture’s storytelling, and experiences of both the hosts and the tourists will be taking center stage in rethinking this form of tourism. In restating tourism post-COVID19 Africa’s destinations should look to cultural tourism by addressing dilemmas of value which may hinder the realization of the full potential of niche tourism.

An article published by the BBC before the tweet chat discussion stated that for hundreds of years, indigenous groups have warned that destroying the environment would lead to diseases and adverse effects on lives and culture. However, the article focused much on Bribri one of the largest indigenous communities in Costa Rica. The number of values that many African communities placed on natural resources and the environment was enormous and their violations many believe are one of the reasons for crises and calamities. It will be very interesting to see how destination managers handle cultural tourism post-COVID-19.

As always, the dialogues on STTA Change Makers are driven by passionate sustainability champions of Africa who believe tourism can be an effective tool of achieving many of the continent’s set out goals.

This article is a compilation of knowledgeable comments on the chat, that apparently I could not cover even half of, thanks to my word count.

I would love it if you could share your thoughts on cultural tourism in Africa and beyond even briefly in the comment section. Until the next STTA Change Makers platform.

Au revoir!

Kepha Olwal, Guest Author