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Niche tourism: Ghostly tales and haunted tourism

The allure of the supernatural has captivated human curiosity for centuries. Tales of phantoms, lost souls, and chilling apparitions have echoed through time and space, finding a unique expression in every culture. The result? The emergence of a niche tourism market known as ‘haunted tourism’.

Ultimately, haunted tourism was born out of people’s love for storytelling and the mysteries that challenge our understanding of reality. While ghost tours have been an integral part of European and American travel culture for decades, Africa – and more specifically, South Africa – is fast becoming a hotspot for these spectral expeditions.

South Africa’s evolving ghostly narratives

South Africa’s layered history, plentiful cultures, and captivating tales provide fertile ground for ghost stories. Towns like Prince Albert and Montagu and various historic hotels, such as Matjiesfontein’s Lord Milner Hotel and The Nottingham Road Hotel in KwaZulu-Natal, are rapidly gaining a reputation for their ghostly goings-on. In these towns and hotels, there’s a whisper of the past in every shadow – and many tourists are eager to listen in! Luckily, there are a few local storytellers who are happy to lend a hand.

Ailsa Tudhope is one of them. She’s well-known for her ghost walk in the historic town of Prince Albert in the Western Cape, which she started 21 years ago:

 “I was telling local stories at a festival in Prince Albert in 2002. That evening, I included three ghost stories, which were very well received. From there, inspired by the Ghost Walk in York in the UK, where history and ghostly stories are combined, I created a Ghost Walk in Prince Albert. The tour includes interesting stories about characters who lived here long ago – many of whom don’t want to leave.”

Then there’s Marchelle van Zyl, founder of Flying Feet and its Ghost & Historic Town Bike Tour in Montagu, who started her ghost tour from a slightly different inspiration:

“I noticed there wasn’t a lot going on in Montagu in the evenings, especially for families, so I hosted my first ghost tour in 2019 as a joke for some of my friends and their kids. It was a massive hit, and I realised that Montagu’s architecture and layout make for a great setting for this type of tour. My Ghost & Historic Town Bike Tour has since become a permanent fixture within Flying Feet’s offerings,” she says.

Striking the balance between ‘the scare’ and ‘the story’

The key lies in storytelling for travel suppliers considering capitalising on this niche market. As Marchelle aptly puts it, “At the end of the day, ghost tours are about experiencing a town at a different time and seeing it in a different light.”

The experiences offered by Ailsa and Marchelle aren’t just focused ghosts. They’re about the tales of the town, its history, and the characters who once roamed its streets. By integrating history, culture, and supernatural elements, one can create a unique travel experience that appeals to both believers and sceptics and the young and old alike.

Unfortunately, according to Johann Latsky, Owner of Latsky Multimedia and someone who has experienced countless supernatural occurrences throughout South Africa first-hand, many historical hotels and museums are hesitant to speak about stories regarding encounters with the paranormal on their properties.

Johann recently produced a Netflix series focused on paranormal activity in towns across the country (the name of which remains confidential) and says it was extremely challenging to find anyone willing to share their tales on camera.

“They fear the stigma associated with it and worry it could hurt their reputation when, in fact, it only adds intrigue to their offering. I believe it’s an especially strong selling point for museums, in particular. South African museums are struggling a lot at the moment. The youth isn’t all that interested in visiting them – after all, they can access historical information online with the click of a mouse nowadays. But throw in a ghost story or two associated with the museum or its contents, and they’ll be queuing around the block,” he says.

The growth and potential of haunted tourism in SA

Haunted tourism isn’t just a fleeting trend. Ailsa, having operated her ghost walk for 21 years, notes a marked increase in participants over the years. Furthermore, both of our interviewees highlight a mix of locals and international visitors taking an interest in these tours.

So, how can travel suppliers capitalise on this growing niche market? According to Johann, for historic hotels and museums, while they needn’t be a core USP, it’s beneficial to embrace the paranormal stories as something that makes a property all the more captivating and unique.

For tour operators and solo entrepreneurs, it’s all about partnering with local businesses and taking advantage of word-of-mouth referrals.

“I have a website, and I also market my tour on social media. But I have to say, my best advertising comes from the locals, the guesthouses, and the hotels,” comments Marchelle.

“My office is at Montagu Country Hotel. They’re very generous with advertising my business and my activities to their guests. I also have relationships with various tour operators. I think the tour is seen as a driver for encouraging people to spend more than just one night at Montagu, which until recently has been viewed as a simple overnight stop on the R62. We all support each other within the tourism industry. I’m very fortunate to be a part of this community,” she adds.

Word of Caution

Ailsa brings up a valid concern: “I was approached by someone doing research into ghost tourism last year and was disturbed by the emphasis she placed on nasty elements and sensationalism. The blood, gore, and jump scares could too easily become the focus of ghost and haunted tourism and could be detrimental to this layered storytelling genre.”

It’s imperative to remember that at the heart of every journey, story, or haunted tour, is the essence of human connection and curiosity. Whether you’re wandering the moonlit streets of Prince Albert or cycling through the historic avenues of Montagu, the real appeal is the living, breathing history of these magical places.

Ultimately, there’s no doubt that haunted tourism in South Africa offers an intimate, unique, and exhilarating experience. As South Africa’s ghostly narratives unfold, one thing is clear: the past isn’t truly past. It’s only waiting in the shadows for the next curious traveller.

Africa Travel Week

Africa Travel Week (ATW) focuses on inbound and outbound markets for general leisure tourism, luxury travel, LGBTQ+ travel and the MICE/business travel sector as well as travel technology. Shows include: ILTM Africa, WTM Africa, EQUAL Africa, ibtm AFRICA, Travel Forward, Sports & Events Tourism Exchange and African Tourism Investment Summit.