Will Tourism Destroy San Cutures?

The San were colonized both by the Bantu tribes who moved south from eastern Africa and by the Europeans who forced their way northward from the Cape. These land-hungry pastoralist groups dispossessed the San of their land base and natural resources. The dispossession continues, even under the independent governments of Namibia and Botswana, through so-called integration and resettlement processes.

Approximately 100,000 San--the indigenous people of the southern African region--are dominated by pastoralists who control most of their ancestral land. It is estimated that only 10 percent of all present-day San retain access to their former natural resources, and only three percent are currently allowed to manage their natural resources and exercise traditional hunting rights.

This land and resource loss has had an extensively negative impact on the San, limiting their prospects for living according to their age-old cultures. It raises the question of whether any basis remains upon which the San may participate in cultural tourism ventures.

Tourism’s negative influences on indigenous populations are well known. Less studied are the opportunities that tourism can provide in raising awareness of an indigenous population’s skills and aspirations.

Culture and Economy

The San believe that their cultural practices form the backbone of a healthy and socially intact community. Injustices such as land and resource dispossession are so disruptive that affected communities are often unable to uphold their traditional consensual decision-making processes. But the memory of once-strong and unified communities keeps alive the longing for the revival and reconstruction of culture and identity.

The recent introduction of tourism-based undertakings among San communities has made the San aware that their culture is a valuable social and economic asset. One of the communities involved in running the Omatako Valley Rest Camp, for example, had ceased its practice of the healing traditions. But following performances for camp visitors given by members of another community where tradition still plays a significant role in community life, this community seems to have regained awareness of the social value of practices like the healing trance-dance. The community decided that the traditional dances will in future serve the dual purpose of entertaining tourists and resolving societal differences. The trance dance, in particular, provides a means of healing and simultaneously enhancing the spiritual life of a San community.

Although some San youth still refuse to admit openly that their cultural practices have social value, they are prepared to learn more about such traditional skills as the ability to identify animal tracks, the knowledge of edible bush foods, and the use of medicinal plants because they have recognized that these skills will enable them to generate income.

It may seem ironic that catering to tourists for economic gain could have a positive impact on the cultural revival of San communities, especially among San youth who have lost interest in their heritage, yet it does have a positive impact in many respects. Tourism elevates the position of elderly community members as the teachers of San traditions. It remains to be seen whether other San communities involved in tourism will experience the same positive cultural impact as that experienced at the Omatako Valley Rest Camp. And communities that emphasize the income-generating potential of their culture risk further undermining it if they perform cultural practices exclusively for the sake of tourists.

Can San Say No to Tourism?

The governments of the southern African region have all decided to promote tourism, and this decision means that many San communities will be confronted by the tourism industry whether or not they want a role in it. Governments, private enterprise, and development workers believe that the San should be allowed to make their own decisions about participation in the tourism industry. But will this sentiment be reflected in reality? As things stand, the majority of San communities do not have the power needed to manage their own natural resources, or even rights of access to them. In other words, reality, for many, means a life of extreme poverty and marginalization; communities in this situation may feel forced to participate in tourism activities because they constitute the only available source of income.

The San may have trouble deciding whether or not to participate in the tourism industry because they lack information about and experience with the impact of tourism on their community life. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (WIMSA) have been asked by various San communities to provide the information as well as assistance in obtaining legal advice and training on tourism-related topics.

San Skills on a Professional Level?

The traditional skills still practiced by the San include game hunting and identifying and tracking wild animals, gathering and preparing bush foods, producing crafts, identifying and applying medicinal plants, and healing individuals and communities through dances.

Hunting is traditionally the domain of men. The San’s hunting skills cover, among other things, the management of natural resources including game, a knowledge of where game browse according to seasonal changes and an ability to track them accordingly, and the production of poisoned arrows with which to hunt. The skills of a San hunter are so profoundly sensitized that he is able to interpret from an animal’s tracks whether that animal is male or female, young or old, weak or strong. He can also tell when the animal passed a certain place, whether or not it searched for a particular food or for water, whether other animals of the same kind were with it, and whether or not it was followed by a predator.

Women and children are chiefly in charge of gathering bush foods. They too have a highly sensitized knowledge. Among other things, they know the harvest time of particular varieties, sustainable harvesting systems, and cultivation methods to support higher yields. The gatherers often act as informants for the hunters about game present in a vicinity, which indicates that women and children also know how to interpret game tracks. The preparation of certain bush foods also requires specific skills. These foods have to be made easily digestible and any poison contained within must be removed. This knowledge could be invaluable to nutritionists and researchers if they were only aware of it.

San women, men, and children are all involved in the production of crafts. The wide range of crafts they produce includes jewelry, tools, and household items. Craft production requires a thorough knowledge of the materials used—ostrich egg shells, leather, wood, dried fruits, and tree bark—and an artistic talent for design purposes.

In the treatment of disease, the San most often use their healing dances. These dances, performed under the guidance of a healer who has special powers, are not only for curing individual illness, but also community ills. And traditional San doctors possess a vast knowledge both of medicinal plants and of their correct preparation and application in treating a range of diseases.

Middle-aged and elderly San community members have a vast knowledge of these skill sets, yet in the eyes of society at large, their skills do not constitute professional knowledge. It remains to be seen whether tourism will be of help in leading society to recognize and promote San livelihoods as acknowledged professions, or whether their skills will continue to be relegated to the realm of myth. If tourists are to appreciate the uniqueness of the San’s skills, it is vital that they are sensitive, open-minded, well informed and interested in specifics. The typical tourist romanticizes the perceived primitiveness of the San skills without recognizing the underlying knowledge of San practitioners. Only tourists prepared to learn from another culture will be able to recognize and promote San skill sets as professions.


Although many San communities have made the decision to generate income from tourism, certain cultural constraints are obstacles to success.

In the case of the Omatako Valley Rest Camp, the goal of the five San communities involved was to generate income by setting up a campsite and selling crafts and basic groceries in two separate shops. Almost all adult members of the five communities participated in constructing the campsite during the project’s inception phase. It soon became apparent that community members had expectations of cash payments. To ensure the continuation of the project, an executive committee consisting of San community members was set up to deal with such unrealistic expectations. But the committee’s hierarchical structure defied the San’s traditional consensus-based governing structures. As a result, a number of community members rejected the committee’s decisions and demanded compensation for their input—originally offered free of charge—into the campsite.

In a subsequent phase of the project, when San were appointed by the committee to positions of campsite manager, shopkeeper, tourist guide, translator, and watchman, those without positions saw themselves as have-nots despite their opportunity to derive an income through the sale of their crafts. Individuals whose jobs required them to handle money were accused of fraud. Because literacy and numeracy skills are largely lacking among community members, the executive committee’s attempts to explain matters of finance fell on deaf ears. Residents assumed even before the explanation was attempted that they would not understand it. In a traditionally egalitarian society such as the San’s, coping with a gap between formally and traditionally educated community members is difficult.

Nevertheless, from a developmental point of view, the conflicts that emerge in a community project such as the Omatako Valley Rest Camp generally serve to strengthen the community. Communities already involved in tourism have become aware of the possible disruption to cultural values created by the perceived benefits of tourism-related activities. But they also believe that sensitive and unprejudiced tourists could help them in dismantling the prevailing "Bushman myth."

This article is adapted from a paper prepared for the Workshop on Tourism and Indigenous People in Geneva, Switzerland, 28 July 1998.

References & further reading

Hitchcock R. (1997). Cultural, Economic and Environmental Impacts of Tourism Among Kalahari Bushmen. In Chambers, E. (Ed). Tourism and Culture: An Applied Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press.

O’Grady A. (Ed). (1990). The Challenge of Tourism, Learning Resources for Study and Action. Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism, Bangkok, Thailand.

Thoma A. (1993). Tourism and the Ju|’hoansi of Nyae Nyae, Otjozondjupa Region. Paper presented at the workshop on Responsible Tourism, Windhoek, Namibia, 13-15 August 1993.

Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (1998). WIMSA Report on Activities, April 1997 to March 1998, Windhoek, Namibia.

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