Integration and Harmony in Rural Tourism – Liam King

The human body is an extremely complex web of systems, each made up of equally complex organs, all working in harmony to produce this wonderful miracle we call life. The cardiovascular system supplies blood to the various parts of the body. The respiratory system ensures that we take in oxygen from the air we breathe and expel carbon dioxide. The nervous system sends messages from the brain to control the body’s movements and functions. Each of these systems is of critical importance to our survival, but none of them is more important than the others. If any one fails, to put it in non-medical terms, we find ourselves in a bit of a pickle. A rural economy is precisely the same. There are many dynamic parts at play at any given moment, but for the whole thing to work, everything has to work. Let’s examine some of the vital organs of rural tourism.

Business owners are the brain. They are in charge of the system, sending out messages to all the various actors, coordinating activity, and having to stay attuned to any warning signals. They steer the ship and keep a sharp lookout for any ice bergs. Regulatory compliance, planning and strategising, marketing and sales, paying the bills and keeping the books, all of it comes down to the people who own the resorts, the adventure centres, the bars and restaurants, as well as the management teams they build around them. It is demanding work, with neurons firing every second of every day, and not very physical. As the brain is comfortably housed in the skull, most business owners are comfortably (depending on their desk posture) seated behind a computer screen for most of the day.

It takes more than a village

The members of staff are the heart. Their beating vibrancy is what gets the nutrients where they need to go, but instead of carrying blood, they carry sheets to the laundry and back, they carry food and drinks to our tables while we sit in the sun or next to a fire; instead of travelling through veins and arteries, they travel through river systems, valleys, and hiking trails, as they guide guests up and down the mountains; instead of delivering actual nutrients, they take resources and skills home with them, resources which feed and clothe their families, skills which provide them the best chance there is in rural South Africa of upward mobility. The brain can send all the complex messages it wants, but without the heart to do the hard work, the system cannot survive. Without our beating-heart-staff, the businesses begin to fail and shut down. On a more emotive level, the heart is the engine of love, and so too are the staff. With passion for their work, with dedication towards guests, with attention to detail, they nurture a love of the places they work in. When guests leave to go home, they remember the mountains and the streams, but they also remember the smile of a waiter, the sense of humour of a barman, the friendliness of a nanny, and the knowledge of a hiking guide.

The guests are obviously the lungs, the ones who breathe life into these rural communities. When they arrive, they bring with them oxygen, enthusiasm to hike or swim or ride, and a fresh perspective, providing useful feedback that helps us all to constantly improve. More bluntly, they also bring their bucks, without which the resorts don’t make money, without which the staff don’t get paid, without which atrophy sets in. When they leave, the carbon dioxide they take with them are their smelly hiking boots, their muddy jeans, and their camera rolls full of memories, just in time for the new fully oxygenated guests to be welcomed in. As the lungs breathe in and out, so too does the movement of tourists in and out of our rural communities allow life to flourish here.

It takes more than a village

Those are some of the organs, the most important ones at least. But what holds the whole system together? What is the actual flesh and bones body of this rural economy? All you need to find the answer is to look around: mother nature. This pristine natural environment is the stage on which our various actors are given space to perform. Cities are places of bustling vibrancy, cosmopolitanism, and economic opportunity, but they can also be loud, overcrowded, and polluted. We need a retreat, a place of natural beauty and stillness to escape to while we recharge our batteries. This is why, as the American author Edward Abbey put it, “wilderness is an essential part of civilisation.” And it is also why we have to conserve the natural heritage of these rural communities. The wild animals, the clear mountain streams, the rolling veld, these are all parts of integrated ecosystems that must be protected, not only for their inherent value, but because the human experience in these rural environments is enriched by their preservation. If we allow these natural wonders to degrade, the fresh oxygen will decide to go elsewhere, and the body will be deprived of the air it needs to continue breathing. Without wilderness, the body of rural tourism will collapse. All the organs depend on it for survival.

It takes more than a village

Like the human body, tourism in rural South Africa is in fact a highly integrated and sensitive micro-economy. There are so many variable systems at play, each of equal importance to the sustenance of the entire operation. For tourism to thrive, all of these systems need to function, not independently, but in harmony with one another. The business owners cannot be aloof, the staff cannot be cold and without passion, the guests cannot stay away, and the environment cannot be neglected. If any of these things happen, there is collapse. But if they work together, and they work well, beautiful things happen. Entire communities are uplifted, remote areas are showcased, visitors have their life experiences genuinely enriched, and we are able to look after this natural splendour that makes it all possible, so that the following generations get to enjoy it as much as we do. As the Roman historian Sallust said: “harmony makes small things grow. Lack of it makes great things decay.”

It takes more than a village

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