By Jessie Taylor

Cultural tourism, which brings travellers to spend time at notable heritage sites, has significant potential to increase economic activity. But to tap into this lucrative market, destinations need to preserve heritage sites.

Protecting these significant sites in South Africa falls to the South African Heritage Resource Agency (SAHRA). SAHRA is the national body that is mandated to identify and manage South Africa’s heritage resources and to protect them for future generations. This means it is the agency that is for the protection of South Africa’s cultural heritage.


Identifying and protecting heritage resources

The body works to develop the skills and capacities of communities, to help them identify and protect heritage resources. Heritage resources include any place or object of cultural significance, either publicly or privately owned. 

However, this heritage is largely unprotected and undiscovered, with many communities living in heritage areas unaware of the intrinsic value of those sites or how to manage and protect them. 

SAHRA works to encourage South Africans to conserve what they consider to be valuable heritage resources, as the country has a rich cultural heritage. The organisation works with local communities to identify heritage resources and record the oral and living histories of these resources. The organisation also works to educate the public and increase public involvement in the preservation of heritage resources.

At the heart of SAHRA’s operations is a steadfast focus on the organisation’s mandate: the identification, conservation, promotion and preservation of our heritage. 

One of the ways SAHRA does this is through the grading and declaration of National Heritage Sites.

The grading and declaration of heritage sites provide a way to assess significant sites and establish conservation management plans for them. Among the sites that can be considered for grading are sites, objects, shipwrecks and graves. Both processes require a lengthy research process to establish the resource’s significance, management, and sustainability.

During the grading process, SAHRA assesses the heritage significance of the resource and determines the relevant authority that will oversee the site. There are three grades, with Grade 1 assigned to sites with national significance that will be administered by SAHRA.

If named a Grade 1 heritage resource, a declaration is issued. This is the formal recognition of the heritage resource’s significance and will lead to the establishment of a conservation management plan. Once the heritage object has been declared, no person may destroy, damage or alter it without a permit from SAHRA.


Heritage plays a role in drawing in tourism

National Heritage Sites need protection to safeguard them from damage or alteration and prevent development that could endanger them. The protection also offers a way to regulate public use of the site.

South Africa has several heritage sites declared by SAHRA, including Castle of Good Hope, Bushmanskloof Rock Painting Landscape, The Daljosafat Cultural Landscape, SS Mendi Memorial, The South African Astronomical Observatory, Liliesleaf Farm and the West Coast Fossil Park. These are in addition to South Africa’s eight World Heritage Sites: Robben Island, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Cradle of Humankind, Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, Mapungubwe Heritage Site, Cape Floral Kingdom, Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape and Vredefort Dome.

Heritage sites are essential for a thriving cultural tourism market. This type of tourism sees people travelling to experience the places, artefacts, and activities of a people and place’s history. Research has shown that this type of tourist stays longer and spends more at their destination – which has the added benefit of increasing business opportunities, creating jobs and bolstering the local economy.

Over the last few decades, cultural tourism has seen significant growth, especially with its declaration of World Heritage Sites. Today, it is estimated that around a third of all tourism is cultural tourism and is expected to grow by around 15% in the coming years. The sector is so lucrative that US cultural heritage travellers have an economic impact of more than $120-billion alone.

In addition, the interest in heritage sites ensures that these sites receive protection and that local communities become aware of their significance. This in turn fosters a sense of national pride, increasing cohesion among the population, fostering a sense of identity and creating cross-cultural understanding.

Cultural tourism has also contributed to the revitalisation and preservation of the art and cultural heritage of some cultures, which helps to keep traditions alive that may otherwise die out.



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