Michelle Constant
Michelle Constant

Arthur’s Seat looms green and solid above the city of Edinburgh. City dwellers walk up the mountainous slope come rain (mostly) or shine; and, like the castle, it is as much a part of the city as Table Mountain is of Cape Town. Edinburgh is a great city, a city of festivals, of culture and heritage.  The co-operation between city councils and festival boards is one that talks to the real importance of collaboration in order to grow the concept of cultural tourism. 

I was in Edinburgh to participate in the International Cultural Summit, courtesy of the British Council. The summit, which has a focus on cultural policy, broadened out this year into three streams — economics, tourism, and participation. What became quite clear from the conversation, attended by diverse ministers of culture, including our own, is the importance of placing culture at the centre of the development process, rather than on the edges. As one speaker described it, culture is: “A synthetic term that covers a diversity of areas; it has a transversal dimension.”

The idea that all tourism is cultural tourism, was argued by Prince Amyn Aga Khan of the Aga Khan Trust, who noted that culture, and what it has to offer, is not a luxury; it can be, indeed must be, progressive and inclusive. Ironically, it can also be politically exclusionary and divisive, acting as a drain on broader development and opportunity. All the speakers noted the need for a balance between community development and cultural investment. In South Africa, how we read the term “community” will also need redress and greater clarity. Undeniably, how communities creatively interpret their heritage becomes a form of cultural tourism and an opportunity for storytelling to distinguish physical and metaphorical spaces.

Cultural tourism is about discovering the unknown, sometimes the “other”.  What was interesting at the summit was how the speakers identified a shift of interest from sun, sea, and sand to “self”. The traveller, no longer the tourist in the traditional sense, is now looking for self-discovery; travel becomes a metaphor for soul- searching. Indeed as technology concertinas into time, the “form and function” of travel has changed. As one speaker semi-jokingly put it: “Even Pokémon Go has the potential to be a driver of culture tourism.”  Furthermore, it was suggested that countries and geographies might also rethink, and reimagine, the iconography of place, moving from the clogs, windmills, and tulips of the Netherlands, or the lions, beachfront, and rhinos of South Africa, to something more immediate, contemporary and engaged — the importance of new contemporary artistic creation was noted. 

The word “heritage” was recast as a verb — an action, an activity that we engage in, ensuring that we invest in our communities over time.  For some though, heritage is a battleground — Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-­general of antiquities and museums, spoke about the protection of artworks from Islamic State.  He described the quiet closure of all museums more than four years ago,   which provided the ability to save many works from unrepentant destruction. As he said, in times of war it is simply better and safer to close the museums.

But it is not just museums that hold our heritage. It is cities, people, religious and social beliefs and activities. Abdulkarim described Aleppo as being like Warsaw in the Second World War, saying: “We are losing one of the most important cities in the Islamic and Arabic worlds, for all humanity.” With this in mind, it becomes clear that tourism is too important “to just be left to the tourism sector”. Cultural tourism is about who we are, and how we present ourselves to the world. Questions such as whose heritage, and for what purpose, as raised by #RhodesMustFall, need to be addressed urgently, cogently, and sensitively, not reflexively, for us to move forward in an inclusive and creative manner, thus ensuring that our country is regarded as a cultural space of great diversity that should be visited.

Michelle Constant is the CEO of Business and Arts South Africa, and presenter of SAfm lifestyle (Saturdays, 9am to noon).

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