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Chantal Potgieter: Authentic Travel Experiences for the Mindful Traveller

By Sujany Baleswaran

As travel hesitantly resumes, reviving from the impact of Covid-19 and with the ever-increasing support for the sustainability movement, the travel industry is making changes for a better future. After the world came to a standstill with Covid-19, the natural world was given ‘a break’ with reports of dolphins frolicking in the Venice canals and deer strolling through quiet towns. Sustainable travel means both the traveller and destination wins. Born and raised on the Cape Flats in South Africa, Chantal Potgieter, spent her childhood barefoot and climbing trees, immersed in the nature around her. With a deep desire to have travellers see the hidden beauty and secret spaces of South Africa and her passion for culture, community and conservation, Chantal founded Themba Travels, an authentic travel experience for the mindful traveller.

You were born, bred and buttered on the Cape Flats in South Africa. How was your childhood in South Africa? 

I was raised in humble beginnings, and my memories of my childhood are of happiness. I remember playing with my brother and his friends all day, bare feet and climbing trees to pick berries. We would eat it straight from the tree, and it would make such a mess on our clothes – my mom was not happy! I remember long days at the beach during Summer, and to this day, I cannot resist the ocean. It’s the place where I find solace, where the waves do the talking. Life was hard with both of my parents working long hours, leaving us with the next-door neighbour, but we were loved and well taken care of by my older sisters. We also travelled as a family once every year to the Karoo, a dry and hot place where the sand is as red as a blushed tomato. This trip was the highlight of the year, but it was not the destination, although the same every year, it was the journey that made it so memorable. My dad would carry our sleepy little bodies into our yellow VW van in the early hours of the morning. We stopped at a different spot every time, sometimes along a stream or under a big tree in time for lunch. If I remember correctly, we had the same lunch packed, filled with peanut butter sandwiches, boiled eggs and a crate of fruit we bought along the road at a good bargain price. As teenagers, we would hike up Table Mountain many times and camp in picturesque places. Living outdoors was the norm – staying up till late was nothing unusual. Those were the carefree days, something we all wish we could go back to.   

How was your career before you entered the world of travel and tourism? Did you have experience in the travel industry?

I studied and worked as a Youth and Community practitioner for many years amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged people and then in customer services. My career was filled with many opportunities to be a good listener. Listening to the stories of people, whether happy, sad or that of complete despair, helped me to be more compassionate and kinder to people. You cannot help someone if you have not listened to or served them. For two years, I drove across the country with a team of young people visiting small little towns. We used creative arts to serve small communities, and meeting so many different people with different traditions and cultures introduced me to South Africa’s rich diversity. Stopping every couple of days in a new town and a different corner of the country made me so curious, and this created a love for travelling. Every other rural road led me to a new group of people who were completely happy with their surroundings. They lived and loved their simple lives. I then landed a job at a travel company, making reservations and leading operations in educational expeditions and placing volunteers from abroad in community projects. This opened my eyes to even more of the wonders of the country, and the potential tourism could have on local communities.   

What sparked the decision to dedicate your career to the hidden beauty and the secret spaces of South Africa? Have you always known that you wanted to create Themba Travel?

It was travelling through the country, meeting amazing humans sharing their incredible stories around a campfire that made me realize that there were so many hidden gems that needed to be unearthed. Mainstream media only showed the cosmopolitan, western part of the country and hardly showed off, what we call, salt-of-the-earth people! I wanted to showcase another side of South Africa, which has always been known as a popular holiday destination, especially after democracy in 1994 when the iconic figure and father of our nation, Nelson Mandela opened up a new South Africa to the world. To create this, I had to be in the driving seat as I was many years before. I always knew that I wanted my own business and combined my travels, experience in the industry and knowledge about the local communities to create Themba Travel. And also for the obvious reasons to have fun while showing guests around!

A top priority for me was to design memorable travel experiences for travellers who wanted a real cultural immersion into South Africa. For the tourist who welcomes community engagement and has an interest in local artistry and making a positive impact while enjoying our beaches, award-winning wines and wildlife. An experience where the travellers and locals benefit and make the trip both memorable and meaningful. For me, it is also vital to create a platform for the underrepresented, marginalized women in the tourism industry – train and empower them to become owners of their own enterprises, giving them the opportunity to shine. This is very dear to my heart. 

How has COVID affected the travelling business? How did you overcome this obstacle?

Like every industry in the world, tourism was hit hard, and the one sector that is still recovering. The pandemic has taken precious lives, ended livelihoods and toppled people into emotional, mental, physical and economic distress. With 1 in every 10 people in the world working in the tourism industry, the pandemic had a severely negative impact on the industry. With all the restrictions, protocols to adhere to and the UK traffic light system, South Africa was one of those countries which were red-listed. The UK has been South Africa’s biggest tourism trade partner, with over 400 000 British tourists visiting the country annually. To not have this economic injection for the last 19 months meant that so many have lost their jobs, unable to provide for their families. In the UK, people were reliant on the furlough system but in countries like South Africa, it had devastating results.

Needless to say, my business came to a complete standstill. As a business owner, I still had to show up, and while we could not travel, I still had to market the business. I learned how to take my business digitally and created virtual shows, and interviews giving viewers sneak peeks into the country. It also gave me time to check on why I am in the industry and forge collaborations with other industry professionals. To stay on top of all the changes meant that I consistently had to communicate with clients, relook at policies and do all I can to accommodate travellers amidst the ever-changing rules.

You promise a sustainable travelling experience. Can you tell us more about this?

Travel is such a valuable learning experience. We learn about ourselves and others when we travel. Promising a sustainable travel experience means that both the traveller and destination wins! The tourism industry has the potential to be a force for good. For far too long, tourism has worked in isolation, and locals have not benefited from this. According to the Travel report of 2021, 61% of travellers want to travel more sustainably in the future. 89% want to ensure that the economic impact of the industry is spread equally in all levels of society. This means for the sector to be truly regenerative, we need to connect with the already run community initiatives on the ground that have a positive social and environmental impact. And this is not impossible, in fact, it is possible. Community or rural tourism are new travel products, which offer the traveller a ‘live like a local’ experience that is authentic and empowers that community. 

The pandemic provided us with an opportunity to live better, travel better, and be more conscious about the environment and the destinations we visit. Small efforts like staying longer in a destination, using public transport over rental cars where possible, reducing general waste when we travel, or ensuring we spend our cash in the local communities instead of chain stores are all ways to travel more responsibly. 

What is your favourite spot for tourists to visit in South Africa?

It is so hard to choose! South Africa has some incredible spots, but there is nothing like watching an African sunset. Whether you are watching the sunset on Signal Hill in Cape Town, from any of the blonde sandy beaches or even in the bush on a Safari, it is simply something spectacular to behold! You can literally sit and stare into the horizon soaking up the last bit of the day. And it is even better when you do it with friends, loved ones or that special someone.

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