Soweto Backpackers’ Maria & Lebo look to the future
Maria Malepa, manager and co-owner of Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers & Bicycle Tours, describes the impact of COVID-19 on their business as “turning off a tap”. For the Soweto Backpackers team, the effect was almost immediate:
“Imagine turning off a tap gushing with water. We saw a change almost overnight. Cancellations started in February when European countries began feeling the impact of the virus and various lockdowns and travel bans were imposed. Our market is about 80% international, 20% local – with a few business clients too, so it’s been impossible to conduct any business during this time.”
It’s a devastating blow for a business which has gone from strength to strength over the years. The dream for Soweto Backpackers first began to take shape nearly 20 years ago, when Lebo Malepa was selling crafts to tourists at the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto. According to Maria, Lebo saw first-hand how tourists were being introduced to Soweto – and he was less than impressed. Rather than a quick stop on a bus tour, Lebo spotted a gap in the market, one where visitors meet locals on the ground, hear their stories, and can experience Soweto as a living museum, an authentic look at South Africa’s rich history and culture.
Lebo’s Soweto started with walking tours, then bicycle tours and today you can stay over at the backpackers’ lodge, self-catering guesthouse or campsite. Guests experience Soweto through anything from tuk-tuk tours, food and cooking experiences to storytelling, as well as responsible tourism and volunteering opportunities – an ethos evident in the business’s current efforts.
How do you keep your head up in a COVID-19 world? Maria has a few words of advice.
1. Tap into a sense of community
While the business has created discount vouchers for future experiences, Maria admits that with the majority of their clients being international, it has only had a small impact.
Instead, they have chosen to focus on how they can support their community during this time. A decision which has given them hope for the future: “We have managed, with the help of previous guests, both here in South Africa and overseas, to raise funds and have been able to donate food, and clothing to those in need. We have also made use of our food garden and sold greens for a very affordable price – even delivering to nearby communities. It’s been wonderful to see everyone pull together, and we’re remaining positive – we have to in order to survive!”
2. Persevere, reinvent and survive
And for Maria survival depends perseverance and preparation. “Our borders will open, and people will travel again. Now is the time to prepare – and to look into all the new measures and protocols we need to follow once we can open again.”
Rather than becoming frustrated with, or negative towards the country’s decision makers and member associations, Maria believes the industry should be coming up with new ideas and ways of working together. The team are looking ahead and focusing on the sustainability of tourism, and the types of experiences that will attract post COVID-19 travellers: “Right now, both in South Africa and around the world, people are longing to travel, to build connections and see new places. We can use this and market our destinations and experiences in a way that people can see that it is an enriching, responsible and rejuvenating experience.”
3. Remain passionate and inspired
Maria acknowledges that the situation is difficult, and that recovery will take time, but believes that South Africa has much to offer. “We love ‘slow tourism’, where you are not bussed quickly between various places and destinations just to tick off certain sites, and I think travel needs to become this. We need to care about the environments and communities we visit and leave behind.”
4. Focus on transformation
This passion extends to the tourism sector as a whole. For Maria, positive development of tourism in South Africa requires connection and transformation: “We definitely need leaders that can connect better with the industry, our people and our communities and can really understand what tourism is and why South Africa is unique – it’s beautiful land, the history, diverse cultures and its people.”