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In South Africa, a Backpacking Lodge With a Mission

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There is no word for hotel in the local language of Xhosa, but residents of Nqileni, a remote village on rolling green hills in South Africa's Transkei region, have come to understand tourism.

Dave Martin, a white South African, has established an unusual partnership with the village to operate a backpacking lodge overlooking the Indian Ocean, offering jobs, business opportunities and a good deal of hope in one of the poorest communities in the nation.

Nqileni has no electricity and running water, and the sturdy silhouettes of women balancing wood and buckets of water on their heads are a common sight on the surrounding hills. For years, villagers have left in search of work. Under apartheid, they went to the mines; now, they stream to the cities.

For Martin, the lodge is a means to achieve "the unfinished agenda" of the country's 1994 democratic revolution: reducing poverty and income inequality. As one of the first lodges in the world to receive Fair Trade accreditation, Bulungula Lodge is helping residents benefit from tourism, while protecting the environment and local culture. 

The arrangement is an example of community-based tourism, and it's viewed as a promising way to steer opportunities to the black population -- especially in the rural areas -- which has been economically marginalized by years of apartheid. The challenges in Transkei, a separate homeland for blacks under apartheid, are made more difficult by high poverty rates, poor roads and a lack of understanding of tourism. 

Not long after the lodge opened in 2004, a woman working there asked Martin when more of his relatives were coming to visit. She thought the lodge was his house. "That's how bizarre the concept is," he said. "The only way she could understand [tourism] is that there is some kind of family involved."

Tourism has been embraced as South Africa's "new gold" by the national government, but local governments in Transkei are still struggling with the concept, according to Veliswa Mhlapo, a spokesperson for the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency. "There is hardly any budget allocated to tourism and planning and development activities," she wrote in an email interview. That's a major barrier to expanding the industry because tourism delivery occurs at the local level. 

In the Eastern Cape, marketed as "Adventure Province," 10 percent of the area's GDP is based on tourism, and it is the second-highest domestic tourism destination in South Africa. The province includes Transkei and the Wild Coast, 300 kilometers of undeveloped, rugged coastline with stunning vistas, clean beaches, and whale and dolphin sight-seeing. And as the birthplace of former South African President Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid luminaries, the Eastern Cape has prominent cultural heritage sites, including the Mandela Museum in Mthatha, and the burial place of Steve Biko, the slain leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, in King Williams Town.

As in other sectors of the economy, however, blacks have not significantly benefitted from the tourism industry.  There was tourism in the region during apartheid, said Velile Ndlumbini, owner of Imonti Tours, based in East London. "But it was something that was associated with whites. Because of the isolation, [blacks] did not know they could benefit."
Even today, said Ndlumbini, who grew up near Port St. Johns in the Wild Coast,  "People think [tourists] come, they take pictures, and that's it."  

Bulungula Lodge shows how tourism can benefit traditional communities.

Martin, who is from Cape Town, fell in love with Nqileni during one of many backpacking trips to the Wild Coast.  He worked in London for two years to earn the money to open the business, located in an old fishing cottage. It was easy to sell villagers on the lodge, he said, because they wanted jobs. Today, he owns 60 percent of the lodge. The village owns the remaining 40 percent.

Bulungula Lodge is among 17 Fair Trade -certified establishments in the Eastern Cape and 64 nationwide, according to the nonprofit Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa.  As a Fair Trade business, the lodge is required to benefit the community economically and protect the environment. A nonprofit business incubator was created to help villagers establish a sewing shop, hair salon and other enterprises linked to tourism. And Martin recruited his mother, an education professional, to run a pre-school to help improve the quality of education in the village. 

The visitors, most of whom are white, are offered what Martin describes as an "authentic experience." They sleep in one of 10 round-shaped, brightly colored rondavels (traditional South African houses made of straw and mud) with flashlights to illuminate the night. The lodge has 19 employees, and an additional 25 people (out of a village of about 100 households) benefit from tourism by taking visitors fishing, horseback riding and charging them to help women do daily chores, such as washing clothes by hand, collecting firewood and making bricks. The business incubator employs about 30 people. 

"[The lodge] was really fresh and interesting for people because they felt they weren't on some sort of museum tour. It also allowed people [in the village] to learn and run successful businesses," said Martin, who, like his neighbors, lives in a rondavel without electricity.

The lodge's main building has solar-powered electricity. Xhosa-speaking women prepare the meals in a modest kitchen. Guests use indoor compost toilets, covering their waste with cups of sand. Paraffin oil is used to heat up water for a hot shower. At night, visitors and young people from the village gather around a fire just outside the lodge, where youth drum for the group.  

A backpacking lodge was an appropriate fit for Nqileni, Martin said. Villagers are largely uneducated and don't have the formal training necessary to work at large hotels and lodges. In addition, adventure travel, such as backpacking, leaves less of an imprint on the environment and is more compatible with the type of sustainable development taking place in Nqileni.

Andiswa Tshayiso, 23, has worked at the lodge for a year, beginning as a tour guide. She learned English through interacting with tourists. Now, she manages the lodge and its online bookings.

"We are lucky to have the lodge," she said in her still halting English, "because now everyone is working."

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