Township Tourism in South Africa

Travel Research: Township Tourism in South Africa

Today I would like to talk about township tourism in South Africa.  Most travellers would call township tours as a visit to poor urban areas of the global South to see its impoverished conditions and understand more of the lifestyles of local people. Organized by township tour companies. Townships are not only seen in South Africa in cities such as Soweto and Langa or Alexandra but they also exist around the world in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Cairo, and Mumbai.

Township Tours are a controversial issue with many different viewpoints but here is why I feel that every traveller should experience these tours.

Township tours

A Brief Overview of Township Tourism in South Africa


While Township tourism is not a new phenomenon, organized township tours have become steadily more common and popular since the 1990’s. Amakasi as some may call them, in South Africa. These tours are called “township tours” because in South Africa the term “township” generally refers to impoverished and underdeveloped urban areas. The division and segregation of people according to race during Apartheid—the political system that ruled in South Africa from 1948 to 1994—led to very segregated townships with most coloured people being forced to live together in impoverished conditions.

The Research


The research which was done takes a three-prong approach in gathering qualitative data from interviews with tour operators, township residents, and government officials and people involved in responsible tourism planning within the local government in Johannesburg.

Research Findings


1.     Walking over driving tours


Walking tours can allow for more meaningful connections between tourists and the locals which allow tourists to buy products/make donations, and help avoid the more voyeuristic nature of looking at people from a car or bus.


Overall, most companies offer walking tours, although some companies do offer tours that are partially or primarily driving tours. Locals suggest that they would like it if tour guides facilitated more conversation and meaningful interactions with tourists such as more time for conversation, more visits to local businesses, and more time to stay in homes such as stopping to have a chat over tea. However one company in particular Imbizo Tours has the facilitation and trust of the community and spending time with community seems to be they speciality.

2. Small rather than large tour groups


I would say being part of a small group makes it easier to visit the homes and businesses and feel less intrusive to residents. It also can help facilitate more interaction between tourists and the locals and between the tour operators and the tourists.

Most responsible authentic companies do appear to be adhering to the responsible practice of providing small group tours rather than larger group tours. Companies like these need to be used more for an original experience.

3. Provide behaviour guidance to tourists


Most travellers who opt to take a township tour, do not know what to expect. For many, this may be their first time encountering such poverty and living conditions and may not know how to behave, especially when entering people’s homes. It is the responsibility of the tour operators and guides to ensure that tourists do not make a negative impact on the local community by communicating behaviour, as well as encouraging curiosity about residents’ customs through general respectful interaction. Many tourists also have ethical concerns about whether or not to book such a tour.

Some companies provide general guidelines concerning behaviour on their websites and some also talk about ethical concerns tourists may have. Most tour operators give some guidance as well about “good behaviour” during the tour. Picking the right company is an advantage in this regard because not all guides are familiar with the locals and they themselves don’t know how to act. Imbizo Tours does this brilliantly. We were welcomed and it was easy to interact as Mandy briefed us very well.

4. Tipping policies


To encourage professional behaviour by guides, tour companies should communicate that tipping the guides for good services is welcome. This should help supplement their typically small salaries and result in further professionalism among guides. Most importantly this could also lead to guides allowing more of the tourist donations to end up in the hands of the visited communities.

It was found that most companies do not encourage a tipping policy to tourists, as tour operators reported that most tourists decide to give tips anyway. However, tour operators saw the information about unfair redistribution of tourist donations as interesting and may have not previously considered that this issue was related to having an established tipping policy.

5. Provide compensation to visited households


It seems most tour companies who visit at least one township household during their tour and this is generally one of the promoted highlights of their tours. I would suggest that these households be compensated in some way for their time and value as a tourist attraction. Such compensation not only makes sense from an ethical business perspective but also avoids exploitation of the local residents.

It was found that very few tour companies have formal agreements concerning compensation with the visited households. Most receive nothing (or very little) directly from the tour operators. Most only receive little donations or tips left by tourists; however, most guides do not encourage donations so tourists are often unsure whether it is will be offensive to donate or help in some way. Sadly, some local households those that were visited reported that they used to receive regular visits from tours that helped with donations and food but for unknown reasons, the tour operators have stopped visiting them which has made their economic situation worse off. Even if tour operators do not directly provide money to households, regular committed donations of food, clothing, school supplies, etc. would significantly help these households.

6. Promoting local purchases


One of the ways that tourists can help the local communities they visit is by spending money within that community. These may include buying local handicrafts, purchasing local services, staying at local homestays, or eating in local eateries, Imbizo Tours, collect whatever the tourists can afford and take them to the fruit and vegetable market to buy things for the less fortunate families with no source of income to at least have a hot meal for a day or two if possible.

While almost all tour companies provide an initial opportunity to purchase crafts at the beginning of the tour, most tour companies do not promote local purchase throughout the tour. Many seem to avoid lingering around local businesses, which is extremely sad on my part. Because it makes it more difficult for tourists to stop and buy something to support local businesses. Tour operators said they did not want the tours to feel too commercial, had to adhere to their schedule, or said that tourists were not very interested in purchasing goods. Locals want tourists to visit their businesses, but felt that getting tourists to their stands daily is difficult since they have very little power over the tourists groups which are directed by the tour guides.

7. Provide ways tourists can donate to the local community


Usually people take township tours to learn more about the culture of the people, and after taking these tours many have a desire to give back to the community. Purchasing items or services may be one way tourists can give back, some may prefer to donate money to local community projects (e.g., schools, construction projects, churches). This is another way that tour operators can provide to those tourists who want to give back. Mandy had said this is something her and her company Imbizo Tours is highly passionate about giving back after you have left the country and she has tourists who have educated over 25 kids since the starting her company and with her assistance she has helped in the process of adopting families to help better their lives.

Some tour operators say they talk about this option during tours, but if they tourists don’t ask they won’t mention it. Some tour operators reported that they did not want people to see the township as a charity and do not mention this; however, tourists themselves often expressed gratitude for being given information about how to donate if they would like to do so.

8. Create linkages with local enterprises


The more connections that township tourism operators create with local companies, the more widely they can benefit the community.

Most tour companies do try to include at least one local business in each tour, whether it be a local dining establishment, craft store, or homestay. However, more of such local businesses could be utilized to not only help benefit the community but also enhance the tourist experience of the local culture.

9. Seek residents’ feedback


It’s important that to maintain responsible tourism practices, tour operators get feedback from the locals they visit consistently. This does not only help avoid exploitation of the local people, but enhances good will, cooperation, and local participation.

Tour operators all claim to seek local resident feedback; however, through the interviews with locals involved in the visited homes it appears that tour operators and guides often have poor communication or unclear agreements with the local residents.

10. Assure that all tour staff have the same responsible aims


The majority of township tour guides in Johannesburg report that they follow responsible tourism criteria; however, while having such criteria set in principle is great, these also need to be clearly communicated and followed by all.

While most interviewed companies claim to be responsible, the truth that only depends largely on who is guiding the tour and the company’s emphasis on staff cooperation, transparency, and reporting.

What do these Findings Mean? Conclusions of the Research on Township Tourism in South Africa


This research supports the complex nature of Township tourism in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is clear there are benefits for the local people and most locals have expressed that things are better with tourism than without it, sadly tourism companies do not seem to be doing as much as they could to make an impact on local communities. As much as tour operators appear to be friendly, professional, and adhere to general ethical policies, they seem more apathetic regarding issues such as encouraging donations to local hosts, and promoting tourist purchases and donations.

The major problem that seems to be an issue is that lack of compensation towards local households visited during tours. It appears to be a number of ways that tour operators in Soweto, Johannesburg can better improve their responsible tourism practices and the first step would be to facilitate better communication with local residents…

Township tours

What do you think about township tourism in South Africa or Township tourism globally? Have you taken a township tour in South Africa or taken a Township tour in another country?


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