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Cape Town's tourism dilemma

Dec 18 2017 06:01
Mandi Smallhorne

WHEN I was living in Cape Town, back in the Jurassic era, we used to refer to the tsunami of holidaymakers who swelled the city’s coffers several times a year as the “Soppie Koppies”.

Fathers with broad shoulders and thighs that spoke of a youth spent playing rugby would wander the streets of Muizenberg and Fish Hoek with small children perched on their shoulders; as they entered the seaside cafes to buy towers of ice-cream twirled around a flake, they would buk (bend) slightly and say to the child, “Pasop die koppie, hoor?” (Mind your head.)

Wherever the visitors came from, we spoke of them indiscriminately as “Vaalies”, a word that now has the same quaint retro feel as the terms “tiekie box”, “good egg” and “groovy”.

I was born on a farm outside a small town on the other side of the Hottentots Holland Mountains (I’ve heard nothing about a name change, please enlighten me if one has happened), grew up in the Boland, and went to UCT, so it was quite a culture shock when I moved upcountry and morphed into a Gautenger.

I had become part of that amorphous mass of “Vaalies”, and very quickly discovered that some of them had never touched a rugby ball in their lives, that this new world of mine was full of potters and artists and musos and writers and academics too, and that there was a lot to love beyond the Grape Curtain, not least the spare physical beauty of the Highveld.

The December Great Trek is well under way as I write, and my friends in Cape Town are experiencing a deeper angst about it than I’ve heard for many years, a different and more visceral angst. And with reason: as we all know, Capetonians face a real possibility of running out of water within a half year.

I’ve concluded, from a distance, that there are three middle-to-upper-class responses to this: 1. the municipality (or provincial government) will sort it out; 2. I can use as much water as I like, I’ve got the money to pay for it; and 3. I’m-surviving-on-five-litres-a-day-and-recycling-my-spit.

I am glad to say that almost to a person, my Cape Town friends belong to the latter group. Those who have no cash to spare (the majority, since so many are writers of some kind) have rigged up Heath-Robinson contraptions to divert shower wastewater to the loo cistern; they encourage dinner guests to wee in the garden; and any time a few raindrops patter on the roof, they run from downpipe to downpipe filling buckets and other containers.

So why should they be happy to see a flood of visitors (sorry, insensitive use of language) who, they suspect, will ablute daily and perhaps even take baths in their hotel suites? They should stay away, insisted a friend of a friend; the water they’re using is for the people who actually live there.

Well, yes, but it’s a balancing act, isn’t it? Tourism is a key industry and important employer in the Western Cape, so local stakeholders are desperate to prevent the drought from making a huge, long-term dent in it. Tourists spend over R20bn in the province annually, and this part of the Cape’s economy shows halfway decent growth “…strong growth in the catering and accommodation subsector (3.1 per cent) linked to the Western Cape’s growing tourism sector”.

Domestic tourism has been slowing anyway. “…domestic tourism trips continued to decline last year with a declining growth of 0.7% compared to 2015,” according to Stats SA. (By the way, it seems the Western Cape is, rather oddly, a top destination for domestic ‘day trippers’, but the overnighters head for Limpopo, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape.

And there’s a reverse flow: apparently Capetonians are booking in numbers for Joburg’s Afropunk festival at New Year. (A chance to jol and bath, I imagine…). But any putative campaign to thin out the annual Southwards-Ho should have begun a minimum of three months earlier, I’d suggest, and would have necessitated the engagement of hotel groups, airlines and others to wrench the Cape-bound tourists off-track.

And where would you steer them? What coastal alternative can take the strain on water resources comfortably? Yes, the Cape is far and away the worst off, but while both KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape are (on the whole) doing somewhat better water-wise than this time last year, they still have huge challenges: reports that “…water levels in Durban’s largest dam have dropped to their lowest in 20 years have also sparked concern ahead of the holiday rush.”

The real big spenders are the 42% of Cape-bound tourists who are not South Africans (in 2016, 1.5 million furriners versus 2.1 million Saffers). A campaign to persuade Brits and Germans to cancel their holiday plans would without doubt damage the Cape’s excellent and hard-won international image for years to come. And it would badly affect tourism for the whole country, to which Cape Town is the key.

So, what to do? Come down heavily on your own citizens (only 40% of Capetonians are meeting the daily limits on water, seriously?) and create hard-hitting messaging aimed at tourists and residents alike.

Why are there no “Don’t flush when you wee – by order” posters in public loos? A friend has been making some up, for goodness sake. This should be the job of government and business! But she’s a great example: this is what an active water campaigner looks like, someone who fiercely and passionately acts. Be like her.

  • Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

mandi smallhorne  |  opinion  |  drought  |  water crisis


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