JOHANNESBURG – They sported matted blonde dreadlocks, hump grabby bags and frequently smell bad but backpackers are rapidly becoming an important, if colourful, component of South African Tourism. The Cinderella status of budget travelers has usually resulted in them being ignored by the industry though they make a substantial contribution to local tourism operators. “Backpackers probably spend more per capita than do five-star travelers, because they stay longer and don’t book into foreign-owned hostels,” says Neill Burman, Backpacker Tourism South Africa chairperson. “There’s little value for South African from a tourist who visits over for only a week, books, into a luxury hotel. All they do is add to Sol Kerzner’s overseas bank account”. The backpacker’s association is undertaking research with Free State University to collate the numbers of budge travelers who visit the country and the economic effects they have on South Africa. The organization depends on members and its marketing activities abroad at international trade fairs. It receives a small grant from South African Tourism but hopes to convince the tourism industry that it deserves better support because of the numbers of travelers it brings to this country. Backpackers have several advantages over conventional tourists. For one thing, they are less sensitive to the rand’s exchange rate. They typically pay less than R100 a night for accommodation and are willing to accept lower standards in exchange for a cheap bed. Upmarket tourists demand luxury but if the price is too high, they prefer to stay at home than compromise on comfort. Backpackers are more likely to visit obscure parts of the country, putting money in the hands of communities that do not benefit from conventional tourism. Karoo towns, bushveld villages and the Wild Coast all feature prominently on the backpacker itinerary.
“We transport between 15 000 and 20 000 backpackers every year, and they spend time in all parts of the country,” says Renee Venter, Baz Bus marketing manager. Baz Bus is a dedicated backpacker transport fleet that runs a circular route between Cape Town, Johannesburg, Mpumalanga and Swaziland, and Durban. Backpackers can “hop on, hop off” at any point along the route. The youth hostels throughout South Africa. “There is so much to see and do here, from the township experience, wildlife to adventure activities like bungee jumping,” Venter says. She says Australia, which aggressively markets itself as a backpacker destination, now views South Africa as a serious threat to its market. “I attended a backpacker trade show in Australia earlier this year and a constant theme was the threat South Africa had for their market.” A major attraction is South Africa’s proximity to the rest of the continent. Many travelers eventually make their way up into Africa. Others, Venter says, enter South Africa from the north. Another myth related to backpackers is that they are all young, shiftless drifters. “The great thing about an evening in a lodge is you have a retired couple sitting together in one corner, parents and their teenage kids in another, with a younger crowd on their ‘gap year’ in another,” says Toby Ballard, a proprietor of a backpacker lodge in Cape Town. An experienced backpackers himself, and sometimes lodge owners react to the way you look, not to the person you are inside. “Still, it’s a good way to get around. Backpacking puts you in touch with the country in a way that cannot be said for someone who is isolated in a luxury hotel or tour group,” Ballard says.