South Africa is the stuff of dreams for the intrepid traveller. From game reserves to Table Mountain; Durban’s Golden Mile to the country’s stunning wine regions, there’s much to capture the imagination.
But how about a trip around Cape Town’s intriguing examples of graffiti art? Or a cycle tour around Soweto instead?
These are just a couple of examples of alternative holidays being offered by a new breed of tech-led travel company keen to expand South Africa’s tourism beyond traditional beaches and safaris.
The prevalence of smartphones and high-speed internet has opened up a wealth of new sightseeing options, as local trip organisers reach out to a wider audience.
For example, South African company Gummie operates an online platform advertising dozens of unique experiences – from “foodie tours” and township visits, to swimming with sharks – a non-aggressive variety.
Founder Ksenia Mardina says the majority of her users browse the platform regularly on their mobile phones, and return to make bookings via desktop.
“Africa in general, and South Africa in particular, has an incredibly diverse tourism market,” Ms Mardina says. But finding the activities was not always so easy.
“The change [from offline to online] has started from the supplier side,” she says. New tech has allowed people to identify market niches and target tourists looking for something different.
“More and more passionate and knowledgeable people can become guides and earn an income, thanks to platforms like ours,” says Ms Mardina.
“It adds a lot of value to the offering and improves the customer experience. I’m a huge believer in improving life through technology, and am very excited to be a part of the revolution,” she says.
Two of the most popular offers on Gummie are a walking tour focusing on graffiti in the Woodstock area of Cape Town, and a similar activity, but by bicycle, in Johannesburg.
“I believe it reflects a trend of growing interest for African urban culture and street art,” Ms Mardina says.
The invisible guest
Cape Town-based VoiceMap is moving tour-guiding into the digital space. The company’s app combines map technology with podcasts. It doesn’t just guide tourists around South Africa. Some 72 city tours worldwide are available.
Users can auto-publish tours on the platform, so anyone in the world can create a personal, niche audio tour of their town. A number of celebrities have also recorded tours of specific areas.
According to VoiceMap’s founder Iain Manley, it’s changing the way people experience travel.
“GPS audio tours change the whole experience. You can move at your own pace, stopping for as many photos as you like. You also have access to storytellers who don’t do tours,” he says.
Neither are you traipsing behind a guide clutching a flag. “This allows you to blend in and have a much more natural experience,” Mr Manley says.
Technology is creating the “invisible guest”, with many tourism providers, such as hotels, finding they have very little interaction with guests who have a new independence thanks to their mobile devices, he says.
“People are more interested in doing things the same ways locals would, and blending in where they can,” Mr Manley concludes.
South Africa’s Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative (CiTi) has launched a dedicated hub in Cape Town to support local travel tech innovation.
“We aim to build the profile of local travel-tech businesses and start-ups, share information about locally relevant travel-tech trends, create stronger connections between the different parts of the travel ecosystem… and create a buzzing hub for travel-tech companies to find a home,” says Ian Merrington, CiTi’s chief executive.
Local companies understand what makes their country special, he believes, and understand the potential difficulties a traveller may face. So they are in an ideal position to create apps and platforms best suited to this new breed of independent traveller.
“Inspiring today’s travellers looking for that special holiday, and then connecting them seamlessly with those experiences through technology is going to be a significant competitive advantage for any destination,” he says.
Many of the travel tech innovations being implemented in Africa try to make bookings easier, facilitate payments, or make information and options available to tourists.
It’s all about improving the customer experience for tourists, says Tumi Sankoloba, ICT research associate at consultancy Frost & Sullivan Africa.
The growth in smartphone and internet availability is supporting a “consumerisation” of technology, he says, removing tourists’ reliance on third-party agents for information.
He also sees an opportunity for wearable travel devices to take off, citing the US company Trip Case, an itinerary management app that can be paired with smart watches.
“Innovative apps such as Trip Case notify travellers about flight times, delays, places to see and also updates time zone – all on the device,” he says.
Big data analytics could also have a big impact on the travel industry, he believes.
“Big data allows businesses to personalise the offers made to travellers and cater to their individual needs and, thus, increase the likelihood of purchase,” says Mr Sankoloba.
So tech is changing tourism in South Africa and elsewhere, giving travellers more choice, control and information.