Ecotourism vs. Industrial Tourism

I’m currently curled up on an overstuffed settee, enjoying the view out over a dry river bed in the middle of Klaserie Game Reserve. For the next few days, John and I will be enjoying a little break from mines, factories, and worker compounds as we explore the area in and around Kruger National Park. As I’m starting to plot a longer post for the National Trust’s Saving Places blog on the broad theme of “storytelling” in public history, being here at Klaserie Sands River Camp has been an opportunity to reflect on the content and methods of storytelling that I’ve experienced so far at “wilderness” sites and “industrial” sites.

The ways in which “industry” been created and construed at the heritage places I’ve visited has depended on the nature of the site itself. I’ve been reminded of two very different tours I did at Monticello as an undergraduate—one, told in the house, focusing on a conventional, heroic narrative of Thomas Jefferson as a statesman, architect, and inventor; and the other, told outside by the row of former slave cabins, highlighted the lives and experiences of Monticello’s enslaved workers. This interpretive choice certainly has to do with the physical remains and artifacts available at the house and the cabins, respectively. But both of these narratives are part of the landscape of Monticello, and the fact that Jefferson overshadows any mention of slave labor in the main house (at least as of a tour taken in 2008) has a lot to do with convention, cultural inertia, and catering to visitor expectations.

Likewise, with mining history in and around Jo’burg, mines themselves are presented in a very different way from worker housing. The interpretation at the two mines I’ve visited so far (Gold Reef City, which is a non-operational gold mine that’s part of a theme park, and Cullinan, which is an operational diamond mine) has largely valorized the act and occupation of mining—playing up in particular the relationship of man and machine. In both instances, miners as a group were presented as intrepid and brave, working against nature with the help of technology. Issues such as race, wages, and worker treatment did not factor heavily (though Gold Reef City did have a small museum that discussed mining-related injury and illness, none of these issues really played into the underground tour of the mine itself). At Cullinan, which was bustling with miners going about their daily work on the Friday we visited, our guide still focused primarily on the engineering feat of mining (historically and today), the technology necessary, and the institutional character of the corporation running the mine. Even in this working mine, the act of interpretation seemed to abstract and dehumanize the overall experience in favor of heroizing capital, engineering expertise, and machinery.

This device crushes giant pieces of diamond-rich Kimberlite ore, which then fall to the next level for further sorting and processing. During our tour, we were allowed to stand next to the operational machinery as the miners went about their daily tasks.
One of the few interpretive installations on Cullinan property, this life-sized model shows the pattern for rigging dynamite to blow a 2 m hole at the end of the mine shaft. Each day, miners use drills or dynamite to excavate another 2 m deeper, and then the rest of the day is spent removing and processing that material. The goal of each day’s work at Cullinan is to find about a coffee mug’s worth of diamonds.


In contrast, I’ve noticed that at sites where workers actually lived (like the Worker’s Museum, though those were municipal electric utility workers and not miners), the interpretation has tended to have a much more Marxist vibe. Human labor, class, race, and the use of architecture as a system of coercion and control were at the forefront of the interpretation. At the Worker’s Museum, “industry” is accorded a much broader landscape (both physically and ideologically) than at Cullinan or Gold Reef City; it includes not only the relationship of people to machines at the worksite itself, but all of the other component places, people, and structural relationships between those people and places that go into the production of capital. This even includes the exurban countryside from which migrant workers came to work in urbanizing, industrial settings.

What is the process of constructing “wilderness” at a safari camp? In what I’ve seen so far, the concept of the wild is manufactured in a few different ways. The first is through contrast with “civilization.” Each day here, guests are taken out on two 3-4 hour game drives (one in the early morning, and the other coinciding with sunset). These drives, executed in a robust off-road, open-air vehicle, are designed to get visitors as close to wildlife as possible. Parked less than 20 m this morning from a young male lion devouring a wildebeest carcass, the barrier between human and (to be trite) “the circle of life” felt tenuous at best. By contrast, the safari lodge itself is awash in comfort and amenities; this is basically the opposite of “roughing it.” The return to the human-controlled environment at the end of the night is marked with drinks and hot towels upon arrival at the lodge. Even though, in the hands of the experienced guides, there is little danger of any actual run-ins with a rampaging elephant or aggrieved lioness, the opulence of the lodge and the rituals surrounding “departure” and “return” to human society exaggerate the perceived differences between the conditions of drive and lodge.

The second way that “wilderness” is created for safari visitors is through performance and interpretation. Even on a private nature reserve, the anthropogenic is unavoidable. Unpaved roads cut through the park, and remnants of recent human alteration can be seen frequently, in the shape of dammed rivers or abandoned airstrips. But previous human impact is not included in the interpretation, which focuses predominantly on animals, with occasional mention of horticulture or geology. Despite looking out over a vista that includes a concrete bridge or water tower, these human interventions are not verbally acknowledged by the guide (and tacitly, nor by the visitors). In this sense, the guide performs an important mediating role of managing and shaping visitor expectations. She or he determines the contact of visitor and “wilderness” through verbal interpretation, and by scripting the encounter of visitors and animals. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in context of the “Big 5”—the list of the five most deadly animals from the early days of African game hunting. The “Big 5” (which includes lions, leopards, elephants, African buffalo, and rhinos) is presented to visitors as the “must see” list, and no visit to a game park is really “complete” until all five species have been spotted. Ultimately, however, this grouping of five is entirely arbitrary and is purely a convention. But, seeking out the Big 5 gives structure and purpose to game drives, and helps create a shared narrative regarding goals and expectations.

Sorry, adorable baby giraffe. You are arbitrarily not one of the “Big 5.”
An old railway bridge cuts through Kruger. We saw monkeys using it as an easy way to cross the river while avoiding this crocodile below! It would be fantastic to see interpretations that acknowledge the interaction of animals and the anthropogenic landscape.

One of the striking similarities between safari drives and mine tourism, however, is the extent to which carefully orchestrated spatial sequences choreograph the visitor experience. Both sequences function to remove the visitor from daily life, introduce them to a foreign environment, and then eventually reincorporate them back into the quotidian/“civilized” world. This recalls the language that anthropologists use to talk about rites in many cultures, as well as the spatial construct Michel Foucault termed a “heterotopia” – in brief, a space that exists outside of daily life which may be accessed only in a certain, controlled way. In the following two diagrams, I show the spatial sequences used at Cullinan Mine (drawn in section) and Klaserie Sand River Camp (drawn in plan).

Cullinan Mine

  1. Visitors arrive at the tourism welcome center, which is located in the town of Cullinan, outside the gates of the mine proper. Liability forms are signed. The guide ushers the visitors through a series of interpretive exhibits detailing the history and present of the diamond mine.
  2. Guests are given helmets, jumpsuits, belts, knee-high socks, and boots. They change into this apparel in the tourism center locker rooms, and leave everything but cameras behind in the lockers.
  3. Guests are then taken in an all-terrain vehicle to the mine entrance gate, and cross onto mine property.
  4. After a brief surface tour to explore the original open pit mine and the surface-level machinery, guests repair to the lamp room and are equipped with headlamps and emergency breathing gear. Besides the standard safety visitor that visitors are required to watch, all of these steps mirror those taken by miners on a daily basis.
  5. Visitors pass through the last gate leading to the “cage” — the elevator meant to take up to 85 workers at once down to the functional mining levels.
  6. The cage takes miners down into the earth. In the case of the Cullinan tour, visitors voyage down to 763 m below the surface.
  7. After emerging from the cage, the “transformation” is complete. Visitors have officially incorporated into the underground world of industrial mining, and are ushered into the mine tunnels and toured past various operational equipment.
  8. Exiting involves the same sequence of steps, performed in reverse.

Klaserie Sands River Camp

A. Guests depart for a game drive from the driveway directly in front of the lodge.

B. The safari guide drives the vehicle through the liminal zone between the “civilization” of the lodge and the “wilderness” of the game reserve. This in-between area comprises the service areas for the staff, and the gate surrounding permitting entrance and exit from the lodge property.

C. The guide takes visitors through the “wilderness” area, and coordinates with other guides via radio to coordinate wildlife sightings. Interestingly, everything is analog—our guide used only a physical map and a radio to navigate the park. Rather than technological advancement, the drive experience placed emphasis on the knowledge of the guide and his ability to identify tracks, dung, and other signs of animals.

D. The visitors participate in a gathering ritual at some point near the end of the drive – either morning coffee or ”sundowners.” The ritual of unpacking the cooler and guests congregating near the truck to discuss the drive marks the beginning of the return to “civilization.”

E. The visitors pass back through the liminal zone and the vehicle returns to the portico in front of the lodge. Half-indoor, half-outdoor, the overhang extending from the main entryway of the lodge acts as a space of reincorporation where guests rejoin human society. After night drives, guests are greeted with hot towels with which to cleanse before moving into the more formal areas of the lodge space.


A well-orchestrated tourism experience tends to hide or disguise these mechanisms, or they may just seem so effortless that it normalizes the whole process. Breaking down these tourism activities can help reveal the underlying structure and highlight the extent to which there is nothing “natural” about them. All of what we see and experience as tourists is shaped to varying extents by the choices of our individual hosts, and by larger societal expectations and norms, whether it’s a lion munching on a wildebeest or a rock crusher chomping through tons of diamond-rich ore.

A final point of comparison between our industrial and ecotourism experiences to date has been the striking lack of engagement with (or even acknowledgement of) environmental impact. We’ll dive into this topic on this week’s episode of Sundowners. Stay tuned.

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