Lessons from WWW Tourism Initiatives in South Africa

Carey-Ann JACKSON <cjackson@csir.co.za>
Laurens CLOETE <jcloete@csir.co.za>
CSIR Mikomtek
South Africa


The tourism industry in South Africa is widely regarded as an enabler of development and reconstruction. As a national research organization, we are involved in several collaborative projects that support tourism initiatives and that aim to meet our context-specific tourism needs. In this paper, we reflect on the key lessons learned from two such collaborations, both of which seek to deliver tourism-relevant content and applications via the World Wide Web.

Designing tourism Web sites with appropriate content and applications within a developing and multi-cultural context, such as South Africa, presents several key challenges. These challenges exist at various levels ranging from human-computer interface (HCI) issues such as visual literacy skills and interpretation of spatially represented data to infrastructural considerations, such as broadband access, operating system and hardware limitations.

In an international collaboration project, the MagicTourNet project, funded by the European Union, we were presented with HCI challenges relating to the use of web interfaces and appropriate system design. As part of the project, we and our partners developed for non-specialist personal computer (PC) users with unsophisticated PC infrastructure, a tourism application system that would allow the user to create sophisticated tourism Web sites and applications. The system also addressed the issue of digital content availability (i.e., that which is needed for tourism Web site design but which is often not readily available) through development of multi-media and geographic information system (GIS) broker components. Visual literacy skills and the ability to interpret and manipulate spatially presented data -- on the part of the user -- were of key importance.

In a state funded project, the Cultureware project, we collaborated with three partners, one of which was a national tourism-marketing agent. In this project, Intellectual Property Protection (IPP) was a key concern, particularly as it related to cultural tourism within a mass consumption context, such as via the World Wide Web.

Designing tourism applications within the South African context poses interesting challenges to designers. Some of these challenges include, among others, innovative application and interface design for non-sophisticated users, low-bandwidth factors, and challenges associated with diverse visual literacy skills, all of which demand close attention to HCI factors and contextual sensitivity.



In Soweto, Johannesburg, in early December 1999, the South African Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism launched the "South Africa Welcome Campaign" as part of the process of educating South Africans about the importance of tourism in the country's economic development. According to Minister Mohamed Vali Moosa:

"Tourism follows manufacturing and mining in its contribution to our country's GDP [gross domestic product] and could quickly overtake mining if we continue to grow tourism both domestically and internationally. It is also the sector identified by the World Economic Forum as capable of rapid job creation."

The purpose of the "South Africa Welcome Campaign" is to raise public awareness about the importance of building a culture that welcomes tourists to the country. According to the Minister, World Economic Forum statistics reveal that for every eight tourists that visit South Africa, one permanent job is created. Some of the important statistics which are provided include the following:

The catalytic role of tourism in South Africa cannot be underestimated. In a country where a significant proportion of the population is unemployed and underemployed, the need for economic transformation is urgent. It seems -- at a superficial level -- that tourism is the panacea for the country's economic woes. However, South Africa is a very complex country and the role of tourism is slightly more complicated than it seems from the Minister's speeches or World Economic Forum fact sheets. It is also widely recognized that South Africa has not harnessed her full tourism potential and several reasons are offered for this.

The typical one is that crime in South Africa is stifling the tourism industry's growth. Rising violent crime levels may deter many tourists, particularly North American, Asian and European tourists, from visiting the country but there are other less obvious factors that impact equally on the fact that South Africa is not optimizing its real tourist potential.

A less profiled reason is that of xenophobia which has only recently received some attention from the South Africa media and national government . Xenophobia is typically understood to refer to a pathological fear of strangers and strange places. In South Africa, xenophobia assumes a more complex cultural and economic form in South Africa. Earlier in 1999, several African men working in South Africa and travelling on public transport were thrown from the train by an angry mob of supporters of the group known as the Unemployed People of South Africa. It was alleged that the makwerakwera (an impolite term for foreigners speaking African languages that sound like chirping crickets) 'stole' employment opportunities from South Africans. South Africa's economic hardships combined with the impact of years of isolation from the rest of the continent leads to a messy mix of distrust and disregard for other people from the African continent.

A third reason, and one with which we are particularly concerned, is that the proliferation of Web-based tourism initiatives in South Africa does not challenge the fundamental economic disparities between the vast majority of impoverished South African communities, the tourists who visit the country, and the tourism service providers.

The central purpose of our paper, therefore, is to look at some key issues of which we have been made aware through initiatives on which we have worked over the last 18 months, and to share these lessons with other developing countries, especially regarding use of tourism Web initiatives, particularly as it relates to commercial and to cultural tourism..

Commercial tourism: lessons from the MagicTourNet project

The MagicTourNet project, the first case study to which we refer, is a commercial tourism enablement initiative on the Web and from which we have learned some critically important lessons. The focus of our reflections on this case study is an examination of commercial tourism and the related business implications when applied to the Internet.

The MagicTourNet project was a European Commission (EC)-funded initiative aimed at addressing some of the concerns through the development of appropriate tools to enable the development and hosting of sophisticated tourism Web sites, supporting development of a tourism portal and addressing the availability of data for tourism Web sites. The development of the technical components was validated through the development of a pilot application focusing on the Western Cape province in South Africa. Details of the technical aspects of the project have been described in another conference paper -- MagicTourNet: A Web based Multimedia and GIS Authoring System for the Development of Tourism-Oriented Web sites by Laurens Cloete, Hina Patel, Maria Rita Nazzaralli of CSIR and Intecs Sistemi -- and are not repeated here. The project also included a task focusing on the commercial exploitation of the project results, which incorporated a study into possible business models.

A key assumption of the MagicTourNet project was that the Internet has the potential to overturn conventional business models and, by implication, to redefine the roles of different tourism actors such as travel agents, Tour Operators, and national and regional tourism authorities. As we progressed on this initiative, we had first-hand experience of the reality that new business models require new skills and tools. Theoretically, the Internet should allow tourism service providers such as hotels or restaurants or museums to offer their services directly to consumers.

There were, however, a number of considerations that prevented this from happening to the extent that we initially believed was possible.

The first of these was that the ability to design professional Web sites capable of competing with other distractions on the Web and ensuring Web sites were updated and maintained was (and still is) constituted by skills and resources not available to the majority of South Africans and to tourism service providers. The movement towards designing intuitive and user-friendly tourism applications was one step towards supporting a more dynamic and empowered tourism service sector in South Africa.

The second consideration was the need to stimulate and compel the virtual tourist. It is the case that potential tourists would like to get a sense of the place and the people they are intending to visit. Many tourists tend to use conventional media such as printed travel literature books containing visual images and maps of the places they would like to visit. Integrating images and static maps into Web site content is relatively easy but it offers little value over conventional media, and the Web site content remains essentially static. Overcoming this inertia of visual and other content was therefore an important consideration. During the course of the project, a survey was undertaken and the results confirmed a lack of dynamic, multimedia data that could be used to build tourism applications. We extrapolated further that finding accommodation or other tourism information presents a significant hurdle to the acceptance of the Web as the way to access tourism information.

The solution was able to address these two considerations in the following way. The solution consisted of building a tourism Web site development and use system that would allow novice developers (i.e., the tourism service providers) to develop and publish professional Web sites with sophisticated functionalities that are not available on non-expert applications, and which, in turn, could be accessed effectively and efficiently by tourism users. From the tourist's perspective, it was possible to obtain -- from a unique address -- a large range of tourist information and to select a series of services to build his/her own tailored package. The added value to the tourist included the following:

These benefits are, however, obvious. A less obvious and more radical benefit is that the existence of comprehensive tourism Web sites highlights the changing roles of traditional media in the tourism supply chain. It is often assumed that the Internet is a threat to tourism but in fact, we argue, the Internet highlights the artificial distinction between the roles of Travel Agents and publishers. By combining the very valuable information that publishers own with reservation capabilities of Travel Agents and Tour Operators, a value-added service can be provided to tourists at a reduced cost.

Another benefit is related to foreign exchange. Although tourism is an important foreign exchange earner, a significant percentage of the money spent on tourism remains in the tourist's original country. For example, flight bookings are typically made in the tourist's home country and not in the host country. Through use of the Internet, service providers in countries that depend on tourism can offer their service in the tourists' countries and address this problem by offering some of the service over the Internet in the destination country. That assumes a more equitable distribution of the financial benefits across the home and host countries. And for South Africa, it is imperative that this happen.

The MagicTourNet system was developed in recognition of some of the changes that are taking place in the tourism value chain. It addressed, in part, a third important consideration, namely the impact of the Internet on the whole tourism value chain as it applies to more than just the tourists and the tourism service providers. The MagicTourNet system does have a potential to address the problem of maintaining up-to-date data about the service or the host country. Through the tools provided by the system, it is possible for data to be maintained by people that have the greatest interest in having their data up-to-date. For example, restaurants may be able to own a part of a larger Web site dedicated to a city or region. A common and professional look of the Web site can be built into the system through the design of templates and style sheets, but data can be maintained by many different entities in whose interest it is to keep their data updated.

What it did not address directly was the impact of the Internet -- and related tourism supply chain transformations -- on the people of the host country who engage in informal and opportunistic economic activities within the broader tourism supply chain. In a developing country, informal and opportunistic economic activity (e.g., informal traders of crafts or 'car guards') are real and necessary survival strategies for the vast majority of unemployed and underemployed South Africans. The mantra of the Internet Society (ISOC) -- the Internet is for Everyone -- takes on a more subtle significance than just having all South Africans seated in front of personal computers with modems. Instead, virtual tourism content should be developed in recognition of the fact that the broader tourism supply chain can be transformed and that the benefits of an enhanced tourism supply chain should allow for accrued benefit to the widest range of South Africans, formally and informally employed.

Cultural tourism: lessons from the cultureware project

The second case study to which we refer in this paper is the cultureware project and our specific focus is on the lessons we have learned about cultural tourism initiatives as applied to the Internet's tourism supply chain. This project is a multi-million rand state-funded project on which we are working within a consortium made up of a historically disadvantaged university, a state tourism marketing body, and a Section 21 Western Cape tourism company. The project has several aims but one of the most important is to develop proof of sustainability of digital multi-cultural consumption in tourism, education and public awareness. The project is currently in its second year.

One of the research activities undertaken within the framework of the cultureware project was the creation of a virtual tourism experience. The chosen environment was a 'non-traditional' tourism and cultural site, namely an informal settlement on the eastern seaboard of South Africa. The virtual environment consisted of, among others, a virtual shebeen or a beerhall in which users could interact with a shebeen queen avatar, an interactive radio digital object which allowed users to select music of musicians such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makheba, an interactive newspaper digital object which played video clips of shack destruction in the 1950s, and so on. The virtual environment was developed using appropriate virtual reality (VR) and multimedia software, and translated into VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) for distribution on the cultureware project's Web site.

The specific residential site was chosen as a potential tourism experience because it currently is a high-profile presidential project and has several cultural and economic programs under way to reclaim the township's potential and its past. And tourism is regarded as an important enabler of its reconstruction and development. The experience designed consisted of a nostalgic / retrospective experience into the township's vibrant community life of the 1950s. This residential site is part of a larger group of cultural spaces -- including Sophiatown and District Six -- which receive local attention because of South Africa's process of reclamation and political and cultural restitution.

A storyboard was conceptualized in which a narrator (in this case, a nine-year-old boy called Mandla) 'talked' the viewer through the experience to enhance the realism of nostalgia for a potentially 'alien' cultural and historical experience (alien, that is, to the viewer). A list of curatorially and historically authentic artifacts were presented, and the structures and landscape in the environment were closely examined and redesigned to depict textural and historical integrity (e.g., the shack home polygons were re-angled away from 90-degree verticals to 80-degree verticals while roof polygons were manipulated to appear 'mangled').

The development of this virtual tourism experience created several important challenges. Some of these challenges were obviously of a technical nature and included translation of a virtual reality model into suitable format for consumption via the Web. We do not wish to address these here but instead focus on two other challenges -- namely, designing culturally sensitive interfaces and Intellectual Property Protection (IPP).

Interfaces are often regarded as technical elements only but there has been a significant rise in awareness of the context and content-specific requirements that impact directly on the conceptualization and design of interfaces, whether they be for the Web or other means of distribution.

We begin our discussion of this issue by referring to an important argument by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblet in Destination Tourism: Tourism, Museums and Heritage that had direct relevance to the content and context design issues in our project. Kirshenblatt-Gimblet argues that the current mechanisms we use to display culture and art demand that we ask questions about the meaning behind 'displaying' these items. Her argument is that there is a technology that has developed which guides how we use objects and artifacts to 'display' their meaning to us and to others. The meaning behind design in cultural tourism Web sites is, we argue, of critical importance in a developing economy and there are several reasons for this, which we will examine in turn.

The first is that cultural tourism experiences enabled through Internet technologies and Web-based initiatives are part of a much broader process of commodification of knowledge in society. Jean Francois Lyotard in The PostModern Condition: A Report on Knowledge [5] emphasized this point several years ago when he argued that in an era of rapid growth of computerized information technology, technology is both a product and hastener of change. In the Information Age, knowledge is 'legitimate' because of two things: the effects of that knowledge and the efficiency of the effects of that knowledge. Lyotard calls this 'performativity.' Knowledge has become a commodity and can be controlled and sold with the intention of achieving more for the purposes of securing a market edge. Our concern, here, is that in efforts to promote cultural tourism in South Africa, the Internet is obviously increasingly used to attract foreign tourists to South Africa's shores but these efforts often occur outside -- or ignorant of -- questions about the unintended consequences of this form of commodification of cultural tourism content.

There is, and will continue to be, an inherent triviality to Web content of cultures and people. A Web-mediated or virtual-life experience of a culture is not intended to replace the real-life experience of that culture and place -- including the annoyance of long queues or lost passports! However, as Sherry Turkle has argued in Life on the Screen, 'we construct our technologies, and our technologies construct us and our times.' According to Turkle, the Internet provides us with opportunities for cultural appropriation through manipulation of specific objects and hence, people's knowledge of cultures develops through those things with which they have become actively involved. Turkle argues that in today's era while we know that computers are not sentient yet, the way in which we interact with them -- and through them -- blurs the boundaries between things and people. In the age of computer-mediated communication, Turkle asks what impact will this have on our commitment to other people? The Internet, she argues, is a social laboratory for experimentation with self, identity and postmodern life. The Internet is an 'easy fix' to providing a substitute to face-to-face interaction. It is part of a move toward virtuality which tends to skew our experience of the real in several ways:

Cultural tourism experiences consumed via the Internet -- unless intentionally designed to do otherwise -- run the risk of presenting context and content about a host country, at best, in inherently trivial ways and at worst, in paternalistic ways. Data and information used in a cultural tourism Web site or application are often presented as sufficient unto themselves rather than -- as should be the case in South Africa's tourism imperative -- as sufficient information to help the virtual tourist transform into a real tourist.

Cultural tourism content can also be presented or displayed in such a way that the subject (e.g., an indigenous rural Nguni culture) becomes the object of someone else's gaze. The relationship between tourist and host is a complex one and it should not be the case that cultural tourism Web sites are designed only for the benefit of the tourist or for the service provider. Benefits should accrue, too, to the host, in the broadest sense of that term. And that issue raises directly questions about whether or not the conceptualization of the Web site was sufficiently participative of the people on whom the gaze of the virtual and real tourist will fall. In participative conceptualization and consultation processes with communities, the assumption is that members of that community have an active role in accruing benefit and adding value to the entire supply chain and the relationship with the tourist. In that sense it is possible to argue that cultural tourism Web content will reflect the economic models on which they are based. And if it is the case that tourism is central to the human and economic growth of a developing country, then progressive tourism management approaches are critical considerations in the conceptualization and design of tourism interfaces. The Internet does not, in and of itself, result in these progressive tourism management and transformative economic approaches -- instead it reveals the need for them more clearly.

The second lesson learned relates to Intellectual Property. In cultural tourism Web sites, obviously, the cultural artifacts which are on display should be culturally authentic. No cultural tourism initiative -- virtual or otherwise -- can be sustainable if it is premised on inauthentic content and context. And obviously in Web-based cultural tourism experiences, authenticity is particularly important as a way of making information about a people or a culture sufficiently compelling to get the virtual tourist transformed into a real tourist. However, culturally authentic artifacts -- particularly in postcolonial countries -- are particularly at risk of exploitation because the resources required to preserve those cultural heritage artifacts are often channelled into more immediate concerns such as housing, health care and (unfortunately) often weapons of war.

IPP should be of higher import to African countries because of the legacies of cultural artifact, natural resource and human plundering that constitute the colonial legacies of those countries. Unfortunately, it does not always and consistently receive the same attention. South Africa, however, has recently developed legislation on cultural heritage resource management and is addressing issues of IPP as it relates to digital facsimiles of those artifacts.

Securing the intellectual property rights of a particular cultural artifact obviously embraces a technical component -- and these issues are addressed in another conference paper by cultureware project researchers, Johan Eksteen and Dr Louis Coetzee -- but also legal and curatorial components.

In South Africa, the design imperative to make cultural tourism Web sites compelling and attractive to the virtual tourist has been brought into direct conflict with the IPP imperative and specifically the legal and curatorial aspects of digital reproductions of culturally authentic artifacts. As the virtual cultural tourist's need for heightened and unique stimulation increases, the need for content and context authenticity is enhanced. But this, however, assumes that someone, somewhere, has taken care of the IPP of a digital artifact. South Africa is unique in its dilemma. What we mean is that it has a vast array of multicultural communities and artifacts which when combined with the legacy of cultural hegemony and sophisticated institutionalization and organization of English- and Afrikaans-speaking cultural groups implies that the majority of our cultural artifacts are at risk from a new form of technological colonialism. The Internet ushers in real risks of having the IPP of a digital reproduction of an indigenous South African cultural artifact being held by a non-South African agent. And in that relationship, a South African agent would be expected to, for example, pay for the right to use a digital reproduction of a particular photograph of an indigenous beadwork design, on a South African cultural tourism Web site. Obviously, that is not to the economic or cultural benefit of an emerging South African cultural tourism industry.

State intervention may seem anathema to many developed countries which actively support little or no state intervention in the free market global economy but in South Africa, state intervention in matters of this nature is critical. Progressive cultural heritage management legislation as well as provision of support to cultural groups to ensure IP on their own cultural artifacts, whether those artifacts be tactile, oral or foodway artifacts, becomes one of the most important preventative mechanisms against a new era of (technologically enabled) colonialism.


In our paper, we have presented some key lessons that we have learned from two quite different Web-based tourism initiatives in which we have engaged.

The first case study, the MagicTourNet project, examined the impact of the Internet on more equitable distribution and facilitation of the skills and resources required to develop and publish suitable commercial tourism Web sites. And it also attempted to highlight the importance of developing commercial tourism Web site applications that are cognizant of the obvious and hidden changes that the Internet has upon the tourism supply chain. We believe that we are only now beginning to understand some of these impacts and are progressing slowly towards being able to ensure that our tourism Web initiatives are able to ensure that tourism enhances the economic and human development imperatives in South Africa.

In our second case study, the cultureware project, we have learned some critically important lessons about the impact of the Internet on cultural tourism as a phenomenon and enabler of human and economic development. We highlighted only two issues among the many we encountered. The first was about the consequences of commodification of tourism information in the content and context of these Web sites. And related to that was the second lesson about IPP of postcolonial countries' cultural artifacts in a potentially increasing technologically enabled neo-colonialism.

Our specific country's dynamics and realities require solutions and approaches that may not be appropriate to all countries engaged in Internet-based tourism but we do believe that what we have uncovered will be of increasing importance to other developing countries' increased access to and use of the Internet in their economic activities. We hope not only that the lessons we have learned will enhance the activities in which we engage but also that the application of these lessons will ensure that other members of the developing world engage in Web-based activities in a more empowered way, such that Web-enabled communication and commerce benefits them and their people.


http://www.sawelcome.com/ South Africa Welcome Campaign Homepage. Last accessed: 29 January 2000.

http://www.environment.gov.za/projects/welcome/pressrelease.htm. Tourism Minister Mohamed Vali Moosa's press release speech on the South Africa Welcome Campaign. Last accessed: 29 January 2000.

http://www.sn.apc.org/wmail/issues/981127/NEWS39.html. Example of South African newspaper report on xenophobia in society. Last accessed: 29 January 2000.

http://www.ispo.cec.be/ecommerce/books/aecev2/1_4_2.htm EC Information Society Promotion Office, Accelerating Electronic Commerce In Europe, 1.4.2 Tourism.

http://www.newcastle.research.ec.org/esp-syn/text/8752.html MagicTourNet page.

Lyotard, J. F. (1985). The Post-Modern Condition: A report on knowledge: (Theory and History of Literature, Volume 10). Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. London: Phoenix. Page 46.