December Spotlight: Bulungula Lodge, South Africa

Bulungula Kwazulu Natal South Africa Responsible Tourism Accommodation
Bulungula’s lodge and rondavels, with the view out to the vast empty beach below

Of all the places I have visited, few have left as much of a mark on me as a remote lodge on South Africa’s Wild Coast called Bulungula. It changed the way I think about responsible tourism in so many ways that the challenge is going to be packing them all in to a few hundred words…

It dispelled the myth that eco / responsible tourism is expensive. Bulungula is offgrid, has solar showers, is local in all its sourcing and employment practices, and has one of the best views I have ever seen across a beach with no other buildings on it. Yet a thatched rondavel hut for two costs £20 a night. Home-cooked dinners such as Malay Chicken Curry with Rotis or Lamb & Butternut Bredie cost £3 each.

Its website features my favourite piece of tourism marketing: “The sky is so clear, we guarantee shooting stars – look at the night’s sky for half an hour without seeing one, and you stay that night free.” In one sentence they make clear that as well as being a beautiful, relaxing place to spend a night, they are open-hearted, imaginative and have a sense of humour. They also feature a section on ‘Why you shouldn’t come to Bulungula’ – a counterintuitive approach to getting the right sort of guests I wrote about a few weeks ago – which has the wonderful line: ‘Obviously racists, sexists, etc are not welcome at all.”

Authentic tourism – Bulungula style

Bulungula Kraal Ancestors Feast Xhosa South Africa Responsible Tourism
Cooking beef at an ancestors feast in the local village Kraal by Bulungula. It was then served on the corrugated metal sheet resting above the Potjie pot.

The word authentic is overused in tourism, yet Bulungula brought me as close as possible to ‘authentic experiences’ that were the antithesis of those staged ‘cultural shows’ where local performers are taken out of context and brought to a hotel to dance for jaded guests in the restaurant. Bulungula offers no such artifice – but they tell you that should something be happening in the village, you’ll be welcome to come and see it. While I was there the village was gathered for an ancestors ceremony and I was invited to join the men inside the kraal and share in the feast that they were cooking. Huge slabs of roast meat were cut with a panga knife, passed around on a piece of corrugated metal the size of a door, and I sat bemused and happy as the man next to me explained what was going on while offering me his Stanley knife to cut into what turned out to be some of the finest beef I have ever eaten.

My greatest lesson in tourism

When Dave Martin set up the lodge, he was adamant that he did not wish to come in as the external expert and tell the locals what to do, even though these were people with no experience of tourism. The business would grow or fail on their terms.

And so Dave explained to the villagers that if anyone wanted to get involved, to offer tours or activities, they should let hime know, and he would then ensure guests knew that they were available. The rest was up to villagers and their guests to co-create.

Bulungula Woman Power Xhosa Responsible Tourism
Making mud bricks on the ‘Woman Power’ activity at Bulungula, and learning about a day in the life of a rural Xhosa woman

One of these experiences was a day in the life of a Xhosa woman. On the morning I was supposed to go on the tour, it was pouring with rain. ”Do you think we could cancel?” I asked my wife. “Certainly not,” she replied. “We’re here to experience how her life really is. This is it.’

For the next few hours, we got as authentic an insight into this woman’s life as a tourist could. Together we walked with her down to the river, collecting firewood, balancing it on our heads and stumbling home, amazed at the amount she was carrying, embarrassed at our own ineptitude. We fetched water. We made mud bricks fora new hut, and she laughed at my reaction when i realised that we were lining the brick mould not with mud, but with a mixture of diluted cow dung, and using my bare hands to rub it around.

Over a cup of chicory coffee she asked us what we thought about the various parts of her ‘tour’ and if we had any ideas for what she might add. Peer to Peer tourism is a phrase much bandied about these days, but if people want to know what it really means for travellers and locals to collaborate on building travel experiences – this is it.

Towards the end of our time together the rain finally ceased, and we sat outside looking at the view towards the ocean and the vast swirl of sandy beach before it. I told her how beautiful I thought the view was. “I wouldn’t know, she replied.”I’ve never seen anywhere else”.

Bulungula’s lasting impact

Reading through Tripadvisor reviews of Bulungula earlier today someone had quoted one of the locals who said to him during his stay: ‘if this is paradise, where is the bank?’ There may be no bank, and for the people who live there it may not be paradise, but the difference Bulungula is making is huge. Together with the village they have rehabilitated the local primary school; built and run an Early Learning Centre; implemented various clean drinking water initiatives; launched a nutrition programme that supplies hot meals including organic vegetables from 2 permaculture gardens for 300 learners; and built a fully stocked library open to all community members that offers stimulating story-telling sessions and Parent Workshops on a range of themes including infant and toddler education.

And this year, just seven years after tourism first arrived in the village of Nqileni, Dave is handing ownership of the lodge – which from the beginning was 40 per cent owned by the community – 100 per cent into their hands.

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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.

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