bela-bela

Bela Bela, one of a handful of racially diverse tourism spaces in South Africa

Considering that I’m a travel writer, I must admit I’m a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to social media travel “trends” and the like.

But in recent months I have noticed with intrigue the numerous #TourismForAll posts that have been popping up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

According to an article on Traveller24, “South African Tourism launched the campaign #TourismForAll in a bid to open tourist destinations to South Africans across the board. The campaign focuses especially on providing affordable tourism options for South Africans within the country, close to where they live.”

But while this may appear to be a noble and necessary campaign at face value, I can’t help but feel that to a certain extent it naively glosses over just how unwelcoming many South African tourism destinations remain to most South Africans (i.e those who are not white), irrespective of where those destinations stand on the price and accessibility scales.

It probably goes without saying that I travel a lot for my work. When I can, I bring my black South African partner of four years along for the ride with me (among other talents, she’s a spectacular padkos provider and useful assistant photographer). The difference in the way that I am received and treated when I travel on my own compared to how we are received and treated when we travel together, or how she is received and treated when she travels with me, is stark.

While I, a white Brit, can go almost anywhere in South Africa on my own and be welcomed with open arms and enjoy warm South African hospitality (that I’m often not paying a cent for, by the way), she, a daughter of this very soil, is more often than not met with varying levels of fear, shock, confusion, contempt, apathy, suspicion or some combination of all of the above, even when she is a paying guest.

I have seen this disparity played out more times than I can count, to the point where now before any trip we embark on together I always find myself having to consider whether or not the destination will be “OK”, or at least not too uncomfortable, for her, or for us.

The truth is, if I was to mark on a map of South Africa all of the places that I feel wholly confident are “OK” –  where neither she nor we will feel unwelcome – I could probably count them on one hand (Maboneng currently holds the top spot, while Spier wine farm, Shamwari Game Reserve, Bela Bela resort and the Langa Quarter also spring to mind).

Street art, Langa, Cape Town

Street art, Langa Quarter, Cape Town

The list of destinations that we have learnt from hard experience are not “OK” is certainly much longer (Knysna, Wilderness and Vaalwater are right at the top of this extensive collection).

And contrary to what some people have defensively suggested, this isn’t just about us as an interracial couple and the unflattering stereotypes that come with that, nor is it about my partner being “overly-sensitive”, as one guesthouse owner we’d called out for her racism suggested.

I recently travelled to the Eastern Cape on assignment with a Xhosa photographer from Mfuleni township, a lovely guy called Masixole Feni, and this experience was notably similar to many I have had with my partner.

First, at a restaurant we were recommended to visit in Port Elizabeth for its “friendly vibe” (the recommendation was made by the white manager of the backpackers where we were staying), Masixole was treated with severe condescension by a waiter he’d asked to explain some of the options on the very hipsterish menu. He also just so happened to be the only black customer in the whole place, a situation which my partner has also often found herself in, which added to his obvious discomfort.

The next day, we arrived at a guesthouse in East London to find the front door open. A white couple were in the hallway signing the guestbook when Masixole walked through the door ahead of me. The woman glanced up, saw him, and a look of absolute terror flashed across her face for a moment before she caught sight of me behind Masixole, at which point she relaxed again.

At first, I wasn’t sure if Masixole had noticed this fleeting moment, then I began to think that maybe I had imagined it. But when we’d signed in and gone into our room to throw our bags on the bed, Masixole said with a rather sad smile “I think that lady thought I was going to rob her or something.”

Bearing such instances in mind, when I see other white travel writers talking about how “friendly” or “welcoming” a particular destination is, my first instinct is always to wonder: For who?

The general failure to consider this question says a lot about the pervading whiteness of the tourism industry. Most of us who don’t have to won’t stop to think about whether or not a place will be “friendly” and “welcoming” to a person of a different skin colour, because, let’s be honest, we generally imagine tourists to be white, like us. . . which, sadly, they usually are. And we imagine our audience to be white too. . . which for the most part, sadly, it is.

I for one am exceptionally bored of travelling and seeing only white tourists in so many South African spaces. I’m also fed up with the amazing number of white South African tourists who seem to treat their preferred tourism destinations as a kind of safe house for their outdated racist leanings. In my experience, the people running many of these tourist destinations aren’t much better.

But how do we challenge all of this in a way that goes beyond cheesy, well-meaning hashtags and helps to nurture a real culture of tourism for all in South Africa?

As travel writers, we can do more to celebrate and showcase the few places that do really get it right, particularly those that don’t get the attention they deserve.

We can also learn not to accept it as “just the way it is” when we find no people of colour in any number of local tourism destinations. We need to use our journalistic tools and experience to probe deeper into this distinct lack of diversity and shed light on the factors that continue to exclude,  and we need to stop being so quick to act as praise poets for bastions of white privilege, however lovely their ornate chandeliers and king size beds might be.

We can also make more of an effort to listen to, connect with and, where appropriate, support the gradually growing pool of black travel writers and bloggers, and we might even ask them how their experiences of a place compare to our own.

But first and foremost, if we really believe in #TourismForAll, we white travel writers need to start reimagining the audience that we are writing for. This is not an easy process, and it’s one that has to some extent tainted some of my own travel experiences. But it is something that is profoundly important to me, not least because I want to be able to share my love for this beautiful country with as many people as possible. I struggle to understand why anyone wouldn’t want that.