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"Travellers' Philanthropy in Africa & The Media"
by Angus Begg

This article is based on a Presentation at the Travelers' Philanthropy Conference in Arusha, Tanzania, December 2008

Angus BeggWherever one drives in Cape Town it’s hard not to come across 5 star luxury accommodation. It’s also pretty much a given in such establishments that the staff will be close to excellent – friendly and informative. And it’s not a fake, forced friendly that is so often found in the developed world. More often than not there is a genuine willingness to please and impress, a desire linked on one hand to sheer thankfulness to have a job, and on the other a need to do it well.

But these smiles aren’t only found in the five and seven star establishments. They are ubiquitous to Africa. And that, mixed in with the wildlife and truly stunning landscapes of this continent, is why the visitors come….one of the reasons why visitor numbers to Africa have grown faster than other regions in recent times. But as everyone knows, if it wasn’t for the media – whether the magazine in the doctor’s rooms or the internet newsletter that arrives in your mailbox every month – then the smiles, lions and landscapes would be left in the coffee-table books and the visitors at home.

So attracting the visitor to Africa is the easy part. Perhaps less obvious is what the visitors want from their African experience? A definite trend is educated - or aware tourists - being increasingly aware of establishments that treat their staff with dignity and respect, taking their personal growth and development into serious account. 

And this best answers the question of how to attract the socially or philanthropically minded traveller to a destination. It works the same with media. If you want to promote your establishment, dish up the real thing. If you’re fabricating information and telling untruths, a responsible journalist will find out and expose you. If you want the glossy smoke n mirrors exposure (which unfortunately lacks substance and is  the norm in travel pages today, little more than a promotion), invite the media; wine n dine them, and they’re bound to produce some fluff with a glossy pic in the travel pages the next weekend.

Unfortunately it’s all too easy to do. But there is a slight danger that the moment of fame will be brief.

I’ve known Les Carlisle since 91, when he was part of the team that opened Beyond’s Phinda Game Reserve. Once back in the city, I watched it develop as carefully as I could from a distance, visiting occasionally (at their expense). From the land management to wildlife management, different ecosystems and community programmes, it has been and remains a fine operation. Whether I feel the product is too expensive is not the issue, and so I have praised Phinda ever since then as one of the top wildlife destinations in southern Africa.
The Real Thing: The surprise element when gauging visitors’ appreciation of the Africa experience is the number that look for what we should call the Real Thing – the chance to live out of their skins for a while; to interact with people from another culture; to be thrown into a different routine; possibly even to dirty their hands while escaping the humdrum of their daily lives.
The first community tourism experience that struck me was in Zambia’s Sth Luangwa Valley in 91 or 92. I’d been covering that country’s election and moved off to the SLNPark to do a story, as no wildlife enthusiast or traveller should visit Zambia without experiencing this park. Kawaza village – guests at nearby lodges could sleep in the village for $40 for the all-day experience. They joined villagers in their daily routines – the only modification of the experience was a real bed in the hut designated for tourist use. At the time I wasn’t aware of anything similar in SA.

Now – as South Africans take it upon themselves to make the country a better place for all - we have many examples. Perfect media opportunities to tell the stories that will ultimately attract those interested.
Case study 1: Bulungula. On the SA Wild Coast, in what is officially SA’s poorest district, it is ironically on possibly the most magnificent bit of African coastline – it comprises all the requisite elements of a good story – and not just a travel piece. The narrative is compelling – a couple of financial graduates, one a chief economist, decide to make a business, backpacker tourist lodge, that will improve the lives of others. It’s relevant: the area is ravaged by Aids, and the provincial and national government have failed the community – despite promises of every household having a tap by the end of this yr, people still have to walk 5km to find one. Emotion: Warm – big smiles from poor people, given sense of hope. The product is excellent:  right on the coast; living almost as part of a village; 100% safe & secure.

MEDIA RESULT: Highly successful, albeit it being a backpacker lodge in a remote part of Africa. Thousands exist, but they don’t necessarily all have the story to tell – or if they do, they don’t know how to find it. Personally, having visited Bulungula a couple of times,  I have written a few pieces on it. I also returned to produce a ten-min TV documentary on it, for the continent’s best magazine / current affairs programme. If they didn’t have a story to tell, I wouldn’t have bothered (for independent journalists, the hassle in getting to destinations is often more bother - and cost - than its worth). Bulungula is that interesting. People – from CEO’s to gap-yrs – make the effort to get there.

Case Study 2: Gorongosa National Park - Mozambique. Narrative: Compelling. American philanthropist pumping money into a game reserve that was destroyed by the civil war in the country. Great characters, former rangers/wardens, Portuguese Mozambicans (former colonial power) also involved. Emotion: people who’ve never known peace or even relative prosperity, so happy. Relevant: The resurrection of a country – feel-good factor.

MEDIA RESULT: Highly successful. And as people learn more of it, via international media, they are coming. Without the money available, we wouldn’t have got there to make our programme – word of ours got around, and CBS arrived, followed by UK publications too. If the story wasn’t there, the media hadn’t have come and the publicity wouldn’t have happened.

Case Study 3: Grootbos Nature Reserve – rural southern Cape. This case-study reaffirms that like Bulungula, wildlife doesn’t have to be the drawcard. This is as smart as you get in upmarket lodges, but it is the story that is again so compelling. Narrative: A family buys a piece of nondescript land - at first impression from the road – and doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Until they learn about the green plants that populate the hills. Start a lodge, then the Green Future’s College – at which youngsters from the nearest township – Masakhane – can study. Relevant: Doing good for the underprivileged while providing a genuine ecotourism experience (from whales to the floral kingdom and threatened habitat) is important to the affluent, educated market they target. Environmentally sound project. They’re part of the Cape Floral Kingdom – the smallest, but most diverse in the world. More plant species than the entire continent of Europe. Emotion: Locals who didn’t even finish school, who have no future to think of, can suddenly start studying and – if they pass – will be accepted to study horticulture at the University of the Western Cape. Amazing turnaround. Silence Ndlovu speaks at the Eden Project in Cornwall every year.  Huge feel-good factor, media coverage followed.

MEDIA RESULT: The lodge again had the money to get its name out there. I’ve put stories out, and so have others. Won a host of awards, such as British Airways’ prestigious Tourism for Tomorrow. This for a lodge with tiny succulent plants that don’t flower for most of the year!
Case Study 4: Voluntours: I have not personally experienced it, but having just been awarded a Highly Commended certificate for the quality of their offering at the recent WTM in London – it means they must be doing something right. As a journalist I spoke to them at the Travel Indaba in Durban earlier this year, and was impressed by what I was told. Not sexy like Grootbos or Bulungula or immediately exotic like Gorongosa, the company - based outside Johannesburg, brings out volunteers from the developed world to work on identified worthy community projects (tourists who pay for the privilege).  The company’s main project is in Ndebele villages not too far outside Pretoria, with neither wildlife nor amazing coastline to speak of. But this is the real, unsanitized African experience, devoid of lions and Maasai or Zulu, and the company has the all-important integrity – crucial in a sector of the industry that has seen fly-by nights taking advantage of well-meaning tourists.

By sheer geographic definition the countryside in which the Ndebele villages are found isn’t as alluring to the average adventure-seeking traveller as dramatic coastline and impassable roads. But for visitors from the developed world it’s all exotic, this is classic bushveld after all, and the trademark, colourfully painted Ndebele villages are rather beautiful.  This may have nothing directly to do with media, and like Bulungula this small venture can’t afford to fly people out to experience their product – so the viral nature of word of mouth is essential. So it’s essential for Voluntours to get that message out. A regular newsletter is one way, as is linking up with as many websites as possible to get your name out there – those like Ecoclub.com.

Smoke ‘n Mirrors: We’re often operating in a world of smoke ‘n mirrors in tourism – with terms like ecotourism loosely thrown around, like green dishwasher and free-range chickens. So it’s best to check them out. Organisations like Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa serve that very purpose – the first of its kind in the world, much like the Fair Trade in Coffee that started in the US in the 60’s - it’s planning to expand into southern Africa. Not sure what other bodies are out there to serve the interest of such philanthropically minded organizations, although, again, on the web, Ecoclub.com is such an operation.

QED: Treat journos right. All the major lodge organizations wouldn’t know the success they do if it wasn’t for the media. Treat us fairly. Newspaper journos who come out for a ‘jolly’ hand their expenses incurred back to the company. But those of us independents who show an interest and a passion for the subject inevitably get charged tourist rates for drinks and even transport costs to get there. My point is that if the lodge can’t afford a couple of beers, they shouldn’t be open anyway. And the value of the editorial inevitably surpasses the meager cost of hosting a journalist 100 x. Cover their costs, and let them write on what they see. They are giving lodges valuable editorial coverage (for which PR companies are often paid large amounts to secure).

About the Author

Angus Begg is an award-winning Photo Journalist & Producer based in Cape Town, South Africa.
Also see: ECOCLUB Interview

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