A picturesque village with a unique culinary offering, arts and crafts, outdoor activities and an interesting local population are what tourists’ dreams are made of. And of course for the small town’s economy, the foreign capital brought by tourism is often indispensable. But what happens when tourism robs the village of its character?
This weekend the Franschhoek Valley celebrates the annual Bastille Festival and all of us involved in tourism are excited about celebrating our French heritage and about the upcoming activities and visitors stimulating our slow winter economy. Chatting to one of the locals, however, I found that some were dreading the onslaught of festival-goers. This negative sentiment probably stems from past experiences with over-enthusiastic visitors, especially, but of course not limited to students, who have damaged the perception of festivals and tourism events in the eyes of locals. And they can’t be blamed. While I believe all locals appreciate the contribution to the valley’s pockets, many would opt to rather stay at home than join the weekend’s festivities.
While a festival’s success is often measured in its attendance, the sentiment of locals is very important to the organisers of Franschhoek’s local events, especially the popular Bastille Festival. Since a few years ago, already, measures such as a locals discount have been introduced to motivate locals to attend, while much effort has gone into attracting an audience that appreciates the valley for its beauty, charm and special offering rather than only being another party place. I definitely think the Bastille Festival is at another level these days. The standard of food and wine on offer, the quality of the guests and the jovial mood in the festival marquee and on the streets are something locals can definitely give another try.
This challenge is of course not unique to Franschhoek. An enthusiastic traveller myself, I have often wished there were less tourists around me when visiting a certain tourism hot spot. Totally ridiculous, of course, as I am one of the tourists myself! But sometimes, the very reason why a place has become famous gets lost among the many visitors. The sanctity of churches, the intimacy of owner-run café’s, the quiet of nature, etc. often give way to a shuffle for the best photo spot, familiar food on the go and mass-produced curios. In the process, much of the authenticity gets lost.
Today, technology and media allow us much more knowledge about the world and its special places and travelling has become much easier and affordable. No surprise then that more of us are travelling. For travellers who are not only party-goers, authenticity is important and it has become one of the leading tourism trends. The challenge is to accommodate valued tourists and to ensure services and convenience without losing the authentic attraction.
Europe is struggling with this dilemma much more than we are. In season, a beautiful and unique city like Venice, for instance, is hard to enjoy among the many many visitors. With travel programmes doing an exceptional job of introducing new places to travel to, many other European towns and cities are struggling to keep their character among the influx of tourists. Split in Croatia, is one. Read the blog post, Tourism and when the locals hate you for interesting insights into this dilemma.
In today’s world, industry is constantly changing and tourism has brought another important avenue of income – especially to communities where the traditional trade and business might have become less profitable. Locals, even when not directly involved in tourism, should understand that. At the end of the day, tourism income is to the benefit of all. What I do think, however, is that we should also educate tourists about their important role in this symbiotic relationship. Yes, visitors bring their money, but without respect for the offering, it might not be there in a few years from now.