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Donija cashes in on culture tourism

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Riral villages in Malawi are subjected to acute poverty with lack of critical infrastr ucture like roads, bridges, hospitals, boreholes, schools among others but the same is not true for Donija Village in Mzimba.

Community Based Tourism is a concept that might be new in Malawi but it is what tourism is all about as adventure visitors look for new cultures to explore when they travel.

Since 2001, Donija Village has been receiving visitors who patronize the area simply to learn how ancestors of the current generation were living in the past.

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Holly Leonard, a tourist from the United States started it all when she came in the village to help them fight deforestation.

But what was a business visit turned into adventure as the American was lured by the traditional reception offered by Donija Village Headman each time she came to visit.

“She asked me if she could come with her friends later and she brought one on October 8, 2001 before she came back with two more on October 20 when they even spent a night,” the village headman explained.

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That was only a start of the inflow of tourists wooed by Holly Leonard and a nearby forest lodge helped to feature the village in the package of excursions handed out to guests.

But one would wonder what the tourists find interesting at a village that has no electricity, clean water, erratic telecommunication networks, among others.

The village headman takes a leading role to welcome the visitors who later are taken on a village tour, showing them different traditional and antique features that are still existing.

A very first type of house in their Tumbuka culture is displayed filled with kitchen utensils and traditional tools that their ancestors were using then.

A traditional dish is later prepared with drinks like sweet beer and alcohol while the village headman shares with the visitors the history about their tribe and ancestors.

That is not all as the visitors further enjoy the traditional dances like the Vimbuza dance which is recognised by Unesco and traditional games like bawo and others also follow.

“Most of the visitors leave with satisfaction and we have had repeat visits that show visitors like our traditional way of hosting them,” said the village headman.

Community based tourism has transformed Donija Village since its inception as they boast two bridges that are also saving 28 other villages.

The village also has two maize mills and contributed to a nearby primary school through construction of a decent teacher’s house while some funds have been used for other welfare issues in the village- all that thanks to community based tourism.

The resources have been generated through gifts that are offered by the visitors and sales of food and some souvenirs to the visitors.

However, community tourism is only emerging with no policy by government to make it formal in the country with efforts to upscale the practice that is only in Donija village, Kadewe in Rumphi and Gwirize in Salima and were all started by some tourists.

Director of Tourism in the Ministry of Information and Tourism, Patricia Liabuba said government plans to launch community based tourism strategy to upscale the concept which has potential to end poverty through direct income to the poor.

“As we are targeting one million tourists by 2017 we want these tourists to be visiting the rural villages and sample our culture as Malawians because this is what the tourists want and that is how people will benefit from tourists,” said Liabuba.

She said government will also construct more cultural villages in some parts of the country in order to boost tourism through culture.

Executive Director of Malawi Tourism Council, Rosebill Satha Sambo said as private sector they will embrace the concept by marketing the villages to tourists, saying it has potential to increase tourism inflow in the country.

“If communities are not benefiting from tourism the tourism sector becomes irrelevant to poverty reduction. Unfortunately, the culture department has been taken from the Ministry of Tourism because these two are interlinked as shown through this concept,” Sambo said.

Sadly, Malawi receives few tourists annually due to lack of aggressive marketing and the absence of a well-developed strategy on tourism.

In 2014 the country received about 800,000 but out of these only 20 percent (about 160,000) tourist were leisure or adventure tourists with the rest coming for family and business visits.

The statistics do not look good for the community tourism which needs more of the adventure and leisure tourists to trickle down to their villages and benefit more.

The low levels of leisure tourists inflow is already affecting Gwirize Cultural Village in Salima which is now receiving less from tourism than before.

According to Justine Chana, who leads the group that is leading the concept in the village, the concept started in 2005 by a Japanese volunteer with Japanese International Cooperation Agency (Jica).

The village charges US$100 (about K38,000) per group of tourists apart from purchases of souvenir and according to Chana they receive up to four groups in a month, but would wish more visits.

“If there were more visitors I think this village would have developed more and more children would be going to school while families would have reduced their poverty levels,” said Chana.

According to Liabuba, resources for marketing the country are so minimal amid efforts to increase the inflow to 1.5 million and improve tourism contribution to the GDP from 6.5 percent to 15 percent.

However, she said marketing efforts have so far culminated into 500 tour operators in Europe who have started packaging the country as tourism destination.

The sector, recognised as one of the high potential sectors generated about K82 billion in the year supporting 233,000 jobs.

The target by Tourism Department is to achieve the 1.5 million visitors and US$1 billion revenue with leisure tourists constituting at least 50 percent. That feat would help community based tourism to benefit villages like Donija, Gwirize and Kadewe.

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