Reconciling Neo-liberalism and Community Based Tourism in South Africa: The African Ivory Route

The commodification of culture in tourism is often critiqued and lamented in academic texts (Wishitemi et al. 2007). What this process often seems to entail is that so called “cultures” of local communities are showcased to tourists from around the world. Often, it is especially what is considered “exotic” and “indigenous” that is showcased to tourists (Wels 2004). This is the case in South Africa, for instance, regarding Zulu culture, however, white Afrikaner or English cultures in the same country are not promoted or put up for consumption by tourists. One of the reasons these practices is critiqued is because powerful tourist entrepreneurs are accused of “exploiting” less-powerful local communities for their carefully crafted and marketed exoticism (cf. Lindfors 1999) while not giving them enough in return, either financially speaking or in terms of management and decision-making (Spierenburg et al. 2011). In other words, “the winner takes it all” and the local communities are once again on the losing end. Would it be possible for communities to showcase their own local cultures, while at the same time earning a serious income and being involved with the management and decision making around the tourism venture? Is it possible to reconcile showcasing community cultures and local participation in tourism operations? To put it more abstractly, more conceptual and more radical: is it possible to reconcile neo-liberalism with the strong ideological principles of Community Based Tourism (CBT) (cf. Suansri 2003)? Or is this too good to be true?

We would like to present the South African case study of the African Ivory Route (AIR) that involves a partnership between a private sector tourism company, Transfrontier Parks Destinations (TFPD) and the AIR Secondary Cooperative. This latter legal based entity was established when the Provincial Government transferred ownership of the AIR to this entity representing the local communities. Provincial Government took this step when, after 2011, several tourism camps ceased operation due to financial constraints and a resulting lack of maintenance. TFPD teamed up with the provincial government, and continued to work together with all the communities like the provincial government had done before, in order to try and promote tourism as a viable livelihood strategy for the communities. But TFPD also intends and is in the process of extending the number of tents and huts in all the camps, generally upgrading them to comply with the demands of the industry. This process is not yet completed due to financial constraints. So, the operation continues based on the same ideological principles, but also with the explicit private sector’s aim to try and make a profit.

The question of whether it is possible to reconcile (aspects of) neo-liberalism with principles of Community Based Tourism is relevant given a recent academic, but also ideological, debate in tourism studies, between two academics, one Dutch, Stasja Koot (2016) and one South African, Keyan Tomaselli (2017), about how to assess the combination of commercial exploitation of a community owned lodge in the Kalahari. Based on two months of ethnographic fieldwork, Koot (2016) criticized the tourism entrepreneur, who happens to be the owner of Transfrontier Parks Destinations, for neoliberalism, while Tomaselli in a response article (2017) criticized the approach of the Dutch scholar, based on his own extensive fieldwork over years with TFPD management consent at !Xaus Lodge (Tomaselli 2012), arguing that aside from more theoretical considerations, Koot had not done proper fieldwork, had not triangulated his data, and as a consequence had come up with too speculative interpretations and conclusions, critiquing the neo-liberalism of !Xaus Lodge, while Tomaselli argued for the fact that !Xaus Lodge is a good example of where neo-liberalism and Community Based Tourism are reconciled. Here, we take a closer look at a trail of other destinations of TFPD, the African Ivory Route. What do the qualitative data tell us about this destination in relation to neo-liberalism and community involvement and ownership? Contradictions or reconciliation? Here, a Dutch and a South African academic write together. One of the authors, Chris Boonzaaier, has been involved with the development of the African Ivory Route from its inception and has combined his work on the route with years of ethnographic fieldwork. The other author, Harry Wels, has been working with Boonzaaier on tourism related research, and together they have supervised a number of South African and Dutch Master students doing their research on various topics in relation to the African Ivory Route.

The establishment of the African Ivory Route

In the late 1990s, the African Ivory Route (AIR) was initiated by the Directorate Tourism of the Limpopo Province, with the vision to make the Limpopo Province the preferred eco-cultural tourism destination in southern Africa (Directorate Tourism n.d. The Golden Horseshoe of Tourism). In order to achieve this, the route would be based on the metaphoric notion of a Golden Horseshoe. The Golden Horseshoe refers to a vast arc of land along the eastern, northern, and western borders of the Limpopo Province. Its outer core is predominantly land of which the majority is dedicated to wildlife conservation or ranching land in a comparatively unspoilt condition, or land that is rehabilitated. The inner core boasts a diversity of traditional cultural settlements and lifestyles. The product of the African Ivory Route was visualized as a combination of the cultural dimension (primarily the inner core) with the wildlife dimension (primarily located within the outer core). This would imply that communities would be given the opportunity to own tourism products within high potential provincial parks, which included so-called Big Five properties (where four of the five wildlife camps were located).

The strategy with the African Ivory Route development, as outlined in the development plans (Directorate Tourism n.d., The Golden Horseshoe of Tourism), was to assist disadvantaged communities who do not have the capacity, skills, or financial resources to become established as participants, at the level of operators and managers of products, in a highly competitive industry. The approach was thus for government first to identify cultural communities representative of the cultural diversity of the Limpopo Province, which they expected would have the potential cultural attractiveness that would draw tourists. Secondly, small community cultural homesteads (based on the traditional lay-out of cultural homesteads), as well as small tented safari camps (inside protected areas (reserves)), would be developed, both on state and community owned land, and then to lease these cultural homesteads and safari camps to the respective appropriate community structures for the sole purpose of tourist accommodation. Today, the African Ivory Route consists of eight destinations in the Limpopo Province, five cultural homesteads and three tented safari camps. Thirdly, cultural routes would be developed in the rural villages of the selected communities in order to enable tourists to observe and experience authentic indigenous cultures. In the fourth instance, all of these developments would empower local people in order to administer the camps and route themselves as an integrated product with joint marketing and centralized, coordinated marketing taken care of by the Provincial Government.

This latter meant that the respective communities had to be structured into legal entities. Originally, the community structures were esatblished as Community Tourism Associations but they did not have any legal status and were therefore subsequently changed and registered as Cooperatives – Primary Coops for the respective individual camps and a Secondary Coop with representation from all the resepctive Primary Coops. As such, communities had to nominate candidates to be trained as camp managers/operators towards which the government would also contribute. The intention was that government would play a purely facilitative role (Directorate Tourism n.d., Official Document).

The initial aims and objectives of the African Ivory Route as formulated by the Limpopo Provincial Government fall squarely into the alternative development paradigm of community-based tourism. But what happened to these ideals when a private sector tour operator, TFPD, in 2011 went into a partnership agreement with the African Ivory Route Secondary Cooperative and started to restructure its operations? How far were private sector interests for profit and a fitting neo-liberal approach to be reconciled with the initial community based tourism approach?


The African Ivory Route as a Community-based tourism development initiative

Academic research distinguishes and characterizes community-based tourism on the basis of the following criteria, people-centerdness, sensitivity towards the environment, sustainability, participation and empowerment (Scheyvens, 2002; Telfer, 2002: Timothy, 2002)


People centeredness

This principle distinguishes CBT, which form part of the alternative development paradigm, from all other development paradigms (Telfer 2002). However, it is not always spelled out exactly how people centeredness should be understood.

In the case of the African Ivory Route, this principle has been introduced by the establishment of cultural homesteads where only a limited number of visitors can be accommodated in order to reduce the cultural impact on the local community as far as possible. In addition, evening programs are presented in order to expose and entertain visitors to indigenous games and plays, indigenous cuisine and storytelling. In this way, a particular appreciation and understanding of the host community is expected to be created among visitors. People centeredness or cultural sensitivity is not only demonstrated at the cultural homesteads, but to some extent, also in respect of the location of the cultural homesteads.  

A representative example concerns the Baleni cultural homestead in the north eastern lowveld of the Limpopo Province (Kolkman, 2002). This homestead has been established close to the last unspoilt hot spring in South Africa. Apart from salt extraction from the soil surrounding the hot spring, the hot spring and the immediate area surrounding it are regarded as sacred. A few years after the establishment of the cultural homestead, the hot spring suddenly started to cool down. The local people ascribed it to the fact that no rituals had been performed before the visitor homestead was erected (Boonzaaier 2007). This case demonstrates that cultural impact assessments must be done prior to developments of this nature, preferably by anthropologists who are acquainted with the specific people. Government officials are not necessarily aware of cultural meanings and practices associated with particular sites and natural phenomena. Although this case could be interpreted as a lack of cultural sensitivity, it appears rather to be an issue of ignorance of particular cultural beliefs than anything else.

The development of cultural routes in the rural villages in order to expose visitors to (authentic) cultural practices was a significant step doing justice to the principle of people centeredness. In this way, tourists are enabled to experience the host community’s everyday life. In order to achieve this, local people from the respective communities were trained as tourist guides. In the training of these guides, particular attention was given to the concept of culture and how tourism could endanger it.


Sensitivity towards the environment

Too many developments in developing countries have experienced the appropriation of their natural environment, which is often endowed with cultural meaning and sacredness, by foreign developers as part of their neo-liberal approach to tourism. Robinson (1999:14) remarks that “(t)he environmental intrusions of the tourism industry are frequently cultural intrusions.” In the process, such communities have become estranged from their natural assets and very seldom receive any benefits from the tourism developed in this way.

To a certain extent, this also happened in the case of the African Ivory Route. An article of Chris Boonzaaier (2010) reveals that the Reserve was established without taking the cultural beliefs and practices of the relevant community, surrounding the Reserve, into consideration. The initiative to turn the area into a nature reserve was taken by the former Lebowa Bantustan, a creation of the Apartheid government in 1985 (Minutes of the Masebe Nature Reserve Management Committee, n.d.). The agreement was entered into with the chief (and his councillors). The government officials were obviously not aware of the cultural meanings attached to many of the mountains, and obviously the chief and his councillors did not tell them about it, and the possible impact that the fencing could have on the people adjacent to the Reserve who do attach meanings to the mountains. It appears that it is actually the people in the seven rural villages adjacent to the Reserve that have been affected by the fencing. Consequently, the community has become estranged from particular cultural practices that prior to the fencing of the Reserve had been performed inside the Reserve. This has led to considerable discontent among community members. The establishment of the African Ivory Route safari camp in the Reserve has not improved the situation. On condition that the Reserve starts benefitting the seven rural villages surrounding it, it is doubtful that their dicontent towards the Reserve will be resolved (Boonzaaier 2010). Within the context of CBT development these are challenges that the African Ivory Route Secondary Cooperative via its Primary Coop, will have to attend to. This case also demonstrates that the principle of people centeredness should not only be pursued in pure cultural practices, but also in respect of the environment. From the Directorate Tourism of Limpopo Province’s side there has also been positive operations in terms of sensitivity towards the environment. The safari tented camps for instance have been designed only to accommodate a limited number of vistors in order to keep the impact on the environment as low as possible (Directorate Tourismn.d., Official Document).


Sustainability, participation and empowerment in Community Based Tourism

Sustainable community-based tourism development requires the involvement of local communities. Different types of participation are distinguished by Timothy (2002). However, the ideal is that participation will take place at the level of decision-making, as well as the implementation and management of development projects. In this respect, the mission of the African Ivory Route to assist disadvantaged communities to become established as participants in the tourism industry, corresponds with the realization by researchers that indigenous communities are not only impacted upon by tourism but that they respond to it through entrepreneurial activity (Telfer 2002).

However, local involvement can only be achieved by empowering local communities (Telfer 2002; Timothy 2002; Scheyvens 2002). Probably one of the best examples of empowerment and entrepreneurial activity on the African Ivory Route has been the creation of a traditional cultural homestead by one of the local Tsonga community members. The purpose of this homestead is to serve as an educational facility for visiting school groups and to accommodate tourists. For this purpose, he worked hand in hand with Harold Kolkman, the Dutch Master student who, under the supervision of Harry Wels, had previously obtained his Master degree on natural resource management with Baleni as a case study. With Kolkman’s assistance this community member received R2 million from the European Union, which enabled him to establish the cultural homestead and so became an entrepreneur.


Another example of entrepreneurship was the creation of Telekishi cultural village by one of the Langa Ndebele community members adjacent to Masebe Nature Reserve. This village offers accommodation for up to sixteen people with complete self-catering facilities. Since its establishment, a considerable number of researchers from academic institutions have made use of this village. The accommodation tariff at Telekishi competes favorably with that of the African Ivory Route camp inside Masebe Nature Reserve. In addition, cultural dances are performed while exhibits of archaeology, geology, and rock art at the site and its surrounds are on display.

From the Directorate of Tourism’s side, training programs were provided in order to enable community members to become operators and managers of the safari camps and visitor homesteads on the Ivory Route. This training was supplemented by a company, Afrika Leadership, that was contracted by Boonzaaier to deliver education and training in respect of particular topics, such as culture, eco-system, tourism impacts, elementary bookkeeping, catering, drafting of a business plan, tourist guiding, destination marketing, entrepreneurship and leadership. In retrospect, these programs were maybe a bit too ambitious if the number of communities involved, the amount of money and the time available are taken into account. The fact is that the African Ivory Route had never developed to the extent that the management and promotion could be transferred to the respective communities. This situation was exaggerated by the low occupancy rates of particularly the cultural homesteads. As a result, the African Ivory Route could not sustain itself and remained totally dependent on the provincial government for the management, marketing, and remuneration of the staff members. The provincial budget, however, was not sufficient to address these challenges. Hence, by 2011, ten years after the start and initiation of the African Ivory Route, some cultural homesteads had to be closed. In order to rescue the African Ivory Route, the African Ivory Route Secondary Cooperative entered into a partnership agreement with a private company, Transfrontier Parks Destinations (TFPD).


Partnering with TFPD

Entering into a partnership with TFPD makes perfect sense, since it subscribes complteley to the same ideological principles as the African Ivory Route. In fact, this was one of the conditions that TFPD had to adhere to in order to enter into a partnership agreement with the African Ivory Route Secondary Cooperative.

So, the African Ivory Route remained to adhere to be people centered, sensitive towards the environment, emphasizing the empowerment of not only staff members, but also community members to establish entrepreneurships (personal communication). No matter that TFPD is a private sector company and adhering to and believing in the neo-liberal assumption that profits have to be made, this does not necessarily mean that TFPD cannot be activist in its ambitions towards social justice for local communities. Actually, it is a rather sweeping statement to assume that private sector interest will always be a barrier to achieving social justice or that private sector ambitions into that direction should always be looked upon with only suspicion.

In terms of people centeredness, TFPD has retained the existing community structures. These structures are the African Ivory Route Secondary Cooperative, which is a legal entity and the owner of the African Ivory Route. For each of the communities in whose areas safari camps or cultural homesteads have been erected, Primary Cooperatives as legal entities have been established. As a legal entity the African Ivory Route Secondary Cooperative went into the agreement with TFPD in 2012. TFPD is responsible for the management and marketing of the African Ivory Route as well as the training of employees.

The TFPD subscribes to the principles of democracy, sustainable development whilst maintaining cultural diversity, tolerance and individual freedom (personal communication, O’Leary 2018). TFPD is also responsible for the marketing. Well aware that tourism is a global phenomenon and that no tourism enterprise will survive without a global network, another important responsibility is the marketing of the African Ivory Route by TFPD internationally.

The African Ivory Route basically and generally adheres to the principles of Community-based tourism development. No matter the dynamics between academics and civil servants, this does not deny the intention of the African Ivory Route to adhere to the principle of people centeredness, environmental sensitivity, and sustainability of which the latter implies the participation of people who have been empowered to do so.

TFPD’s approach towards the African Ivory Route and its subscription of the principles of CBT, is clear proof that neo-liberalism can best be reconciled with the principles of CBT through a form of social entrepreneurship. In fact, it is the opinion that a narrow minded clinging to the principles of CBT would be detrimental. The AIR started to make a name for itself when it combined and reconciled aspects of a neo-liberal approach to tourism with clear CBT ambitions. This only happened after TFPD partnered with the Limpopo Provincial Government on the AIR. The exercise also clearly illustrates that academics can play a role in the identification and investigation of issues that arise in a project of this nature. Where undiluted neo-liberalism might only see the instrumental benefit of academic involvement towards realizing profit maximization, it could well be that we have by now entered a different era, an era where challenges we are facing in the world of today, ranging from climate change to increasing economic inequalities, demand a rethinking and reconciliation of neo-liberalism with ambitions towards social justice. Social entrepreneurialism might be one answer to this call. This also seems to be the tone of the call of the latest World Economic Forum, where in a Dutch national newspaper it was reported that “radical times ask for radical answers” (REF,). The social entrepreneurialism of TFPD in the context of the AIR might be a South African answer to that call.


Chris Boonzaaier is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.  In 1997 he was appointed as programme manager of a newly introduced degree course specialising in Heritage and Cultural Tourism. His publications in this field include ‘Community perceptions of tourism in the Tshivhase area of the Limpopo Province, South Africa.’ Anthropology Southern Africa Vol. 35(3&4), together with JHF Grobler (2012); ‘Towards a community-based integrated institutional framework for ecotourism management: the case of the Masebe Nature Reserve, Limpopo Province of South Africa.Journal of Anthropology (2012); Juxtaposing a cultural reading of landscape with institutional boundaries: the case of Masebe Nature Reserve, South Africa. Landscape Research, 7, together with Harry Wels (2016); ‘Authenticity lost? The significance of cultural villages in the conservation of heritage in South Africa.‘ Journal of Heritage Tourism, together with Harry Wels (2017).

Harry Wels is an Associate Professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Publication Manager at the African Studies Centre Leiden at Leiden University. His research interest are in private wildlife conservation, tourism and animal studies in Southern Africa. His publications include
Securing wilderness landscapes in South Africa. Nick Steele, private wildlife conservancies and saving rhinos, Leiden (2015) and ‘Rewilding white lions: Conservation through the eyes of carnivores?’ in ‘Wildlife conservation in Southern Africa: Taking stock’ (Leiden, in press).

Photo: Signposting the African Ivory Route by Harry Wels; Salt production at Baleni by Chris Boonzaaier




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Published on March 1, 2018.


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