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SA tour guides are being taught Mandarin and Chinese customs – for a better visitor experience

by Luke Daniel

South African tour guides have been enrolled in a six-week programme which teaches Mandarin and Chinese customs in anticipation of an influx of big-spending tourists.

Almost 100,000 travellers from China visited South Africa in 2019, making it one of the country’s biggest sources of international tourists, rivalled only by India in the Asian market. South Africa was expecting an even greater influx of Chinese travellers in 2020.

This expectation signalled the launch of a learning programme – Mandarin Language Training for Tourist Guides – which aimed to offer Chinese visitors a richer tourist experience in South Africa.

But soon after the programme was launched, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, crushing the tourism sector’s hopes of an influx of travellers.

The halt on international travel didn’t stop the programme from enrolling tour guides. A total of 40 tour guides have successfully completed the course since 2019. The class of 2021 – 16 tour guides from the Free State, Northern Cape, and North West – were inducted on Monday 27 September, which is also recognised as World Tourism Day.

The programme is an extension of the Chinese Culture Centre’s Confucius Classroom in South Africa – in collaboration with the department of tourism – which was first established in 2014 to offer language and culture courses.

This year’s guides will spend six weeks at Aha Kopanong Hotel and Conference Centre in Benoni, with the first part of the course scheduled to end on 6 November.

“The first phase of the programme is aimed at providing basic language skills at HSK1. Learning Mandarin is very difficult, hence the training is continuous and extensive for a period of six weeks,” the department of tourism’s spokesperson, Blessing Manale, told Business Insider South Africa.

“Those who pass HSK1 [the most basic level of Mandarin] will be eligible to continue to the next phase of the programme which involves the next level of language learning [HSK2] and cultural immersion. The intention is for guides to become proficient in Mandarin and be able to conduct tours in the language.”

“The course also covers various aspects related to the culture of the Chinese people and gives learners a good understanding as to the profile of a Chinese traveller, what to expect and how to cater to their needs.”

Although this specific programme is only in its third year, similar language and culture courses have been offered to tour guides as far back as 2006 in anticipation of South Africa hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup. For these initial courses, guides were flown to China to receive training as part of bilateral partnership.

The current version of the programme calls on registered tour guides to apply and accepts applicants from three provinces each year. Applicants should have two to three years’ guiding experience. Experience working with Chinese tourists is a positive.

And while the Covid-19 pandemic continues to limit international travel – with signs of slow progress – Manale believes that the influx initially predicted will still come to fruition, making the programme as valuable now as it first was in 2019.

“The programme allows us to be ready for when tourism activities resume fully. Skills development is very important among our guides,” said Manale.

“It helps to keep the knowledge of our guides up-to-date. Even if we operate under the new normal or explore other ways of offering such services to tourists, foreign language skills will always be an important skill to have as a guide.”

“They [Chinese travellers] are an important outbound tourism market and have incredible spending power. Having South African guides who can conduct tours in Mandarin will improve their visitor experience and ultimately assure that South Africa remains their destination of choice.”

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.