Martin Hatchuel — SA tourism’s muse has gone silent

Martin Hatchuel has been known by thousands of subscribers to his email newsletter, This Tourism Week. Its publication was sometimes erratic, but has now ceased completely.

Martin often used This Tourism Week to stir controversy wherever he thought he saw injustice or just plain stupidity. And he didn’t pull his punches. But in real life, he is far gentler, far more reflective.

Martin Hatchuel and his faithful companion, Tommy, an elderly Belgian

Martin Hatchuel and his faithful companion, Tommy, an elderly Belgian Shepherd

He began his career by studying horticulture at the Durban Technikon during a four-year apprenticeship at Eskom.

“Those were the days when Eskom saw training as being in the national interest,” he recalls. “They trained far more people than they needed — so when my time was done, I was free to move on, and I went to work for a company of landscape architects in Joburg.”

By now, though, he had manifested bipolar disorder (which would affect the course of the rest of his life) — and it wasn’t long before his erratic behaviour brought him to live in Knysna in 1983.

“The 15 years from the  late 70s to the time I was diagnosed was colourful,” he said. “But doing many different jobs was a benefit of the disease, I suppose. I learned so much.”

He started in Knysna as a boatboy on a houseboat operation on the Knysna Lagoon. In 1984, the business’ owner, Mike Goldberg, won the first concession to start and manage the tours at Featherbed Nature Reserve (now Knysna’s biggest commercial attraction), which was then owned by William and Jenny Smith. (William, who famously taught maths and science on TV to children across Africa, was the son of the ichtyologists, JLB and Margaret Smith.)

Since Martin was a qualified horticulturist, and therefore had knowledge of the plants and trees, he was the natural choice to become the first tour guide at the Reserve, with its milkwood forest and its Knysna sands fynbos.

“In those days, we thought we’d hit the jackpot if we carried a full 45 passengers on a tour, and we only ran three tours a week.

“There was nothing at the Reserve when we started – we had to carry everything in and out every day for every tour. Braais, crockery, cutlery, tables and chairs, and even water and toilets!

“Mike’s girlfriend, Sherly Gilson, was the chef, and I’ve got such fond memories of working with her and her tiny team, which included her sons, and two or three helpers.

“They fed us constantly!

“Mike was a visionary, though, and to make Featherbed Nature Reserve work, to get the first tour groups in, he made friends in the church groups in the Cape Flats, and they encouraged their members to save for holidays in Knysna.

“He then arranged to bring them here by coach for a weekend at a time, where they stayed in the old Ashmead Resort (today’s Premier Hotel Knysna The Moorings) on the Friday night, and went to Featherbed on the Saturday. In those days the excursion to the Reserve included a boat trip across the lagoon with oysters and champagne on board, a tour, nature walk and braai, with plenty of wine from Boplaas — which they used to deliver to us by rail on the old Outeniqua Choo Tjoe.

“Then after another boat ride back to Knysna, the groups would have an opskop at Ashmead on the Saturday night, and drive back to Cape Town on the Sunday.

“This was the South Africa of the 1980s and apartheid ruled that hosting coloured people in this way was illegal, but it didn’t stop us, and I don’t think the authorities ever found out,” said Martin. “But we all had a great time, that’s for sure.”

While not on the boat or guiding, Martin helped to cut fire breaks, build pathways, and carve signs for the Reserve.

“Didn’t last for long,” he said. “I bounced around from Featherbed to various other jobs in Knysna and Cape Town, and even went back to Joburg for a while, but eventually I landed up as an outpatient at Tara, Johannesburg’s psychiatric hospital, where I spent almost a year in treatment.”

On his return to Knysna, and with the loan of a boat from the Goldberg family, Martin arranged a concession from SANParks to take birdwatching tours on the Touw River in what’s now the Wilderness Section of the Garden Route National Park.

“The Kingfisher Ferry carried 18 or 20 people and had dual motors –- one was electric to be as quiet as possible. I ran a four-hour morning trip and a two-hour afternoon trip each day, and often showed people as many as 50 species of birds on one outing.

“Over 23 months, we carried 6,500 passengers — and 1,500 paid nothing. Some because they were tourism people, but most because they would otherwise not have been able to afford the trip.”

Then came the floods of 1996. “We’d had fires earlier in the year, and drought, and then three floods in a period of a couple of months. The river silted up, and I couldn’t operate – but National Parks wanted me to pay for the rehabilitation of the river to restore it to depth so that I could run again. I felt I had no choice — I closed down.”

So at the age of 38, Martin took a gap year.

“I learnt to surf and started doing odd jobs like building fences to keep myself busy.”

But then Greg Vogt (founder of the MTN Whale Route, manager of the Brenton-on-Sea Hotel, and a committee member on various official tourism structures) requested Martin to write guide training manuals for Knysna and Plettenberg Bay which covered the environment (plants, bird, reptile and marine life) and the histories of the towns. Each section was reviewed by experts in their fields.

“I can’t remember how he recognised my ability, but he did, and I owe him a lot for that. At school I’d been told that I should ‘work with my hands’ because I was too dim for anything else, but Greg didn’t know about any of that. He just liked what I wrote, and the way I wrote, and so when he had the idea to start a monthly newspaper for the industry, which he called Garden Route (later Cape) Tourism Update, he called on me to edit it.

“We produced 23 issues together.

“We couldn’t make it pay, though – I think it was an idea before its time — but it certainly gave me a taste for writing, and after we parted ways, I went out and began freelancing, and I’ve been writing for a living ever since.” (Martin would later realise that his depression usually happened when he wasn’t writing.)

Then in the early 2000s, Martin, who was now permanently settled in Knysna, discovered blogging, and started This Tourism Week.

Between about 2002 and 2017, he wrote hundreds of articles about tourism, and about issues affecting the tourism industry – articles through which he became arguably the most influential tourism blogger in South Africa.

He provided real insight and drove the sustainable tourism agenda like no other.

Martin’s newsletters reached thousands of subscribers, and when there was a gap in publication, CapeInfo clients would ask if I knew what had happened.

Then a family tragedy struck in 2015, sucking up all of Martin’s resources and his energy. (I think he may have written one or two newsletters since then). This was followed by the Knysna Fires of 2017, which left the town with an embattled tourism industry fighting for its life. Martin’s work dried up – so it came as a relief when Featherbed Nature Reserve contacted him and asked him to come back in his capacity as a horticulturist, and manage the rehabilitation of the vegetation on the Reserve’s portion of the iconic Western Head.

“It was a huge privilege, and those were probably 18 of the best months of my working life,” he said. “Working with Samson Ngalo – the Reserve’s longest-serving employee and one of my oldest friends – and with 14 fourteen fantastic people who joined us as raw recruits, but who became really dedicated to the task, I rediscovered my love of horticulture, and I became fascinated by the idea of regenerative horticulture, and how I could apply my knowledge to healing the land in my own small way.”

Featherbed and its new facilities – including its completely rebuilt restaurant – re-opened for tourism on the 1st of December, 2018, and while Martin’s contract ended in June of this year, he remains a fan.

“As Charles van Tonder — one of the owners of 34 South Restaurant, Tapas & Oysters, and The Drydock Food Co. (which puts him in competition with Featherbed in a way), likes to say: ‘A healthy Featherbed is a healthy Knysna.’

“And I agree,” said Martin. “It’s good for the economy and it’s good for the environment.”

PROJECT REFORESTER

With that contract over, Martin is now planning a new idea with a number of partners.

“Project Reforester is an impossible dream to rehabilitate 200,000 hectares of forests in the Knysna area. We believe that there may have been as much as 250,000 hectares of forests in the Garden Route before commercial harvesting began, and before the Great Fires of 1869 and 2017.

“Today there are only 60,000 ha left. So what we want to do is remove alien invasive vegetation from two or three pilot plots, and replant the land with new trees interspersed with cash crops — which is a system called regenerative agroforestry.

“You tend your trees while looking after your crops, and when the trees make too much shade, you move your cash crops onto the next area. Typically, this’ll happen after five years – and then after another five years or so, you’ll be able to start selectively harvesting the timber from the initial plots, too.

“Communications – which I’ve learned through my work in tourism – is probably the foundation of Project Reforester, because we want to inspire local landowners and caretakers to institute their own projects using similar ideas, and that way get the Knysna Forests back on track, revive the timber economy, help mitigate climate change, and leave the world a better place than we found it.”

Martin said that Project Reforester will include (sensitive!) tourism, skills development, skills sharing, research, and many other aspects of local economic and socio-economic practice.

MARTIN ON TOURISM

“I’ve sadly had to come to the conclusion that tourism does more harm than good,” says Martin. “It’s a huge contributor to climate change, and it calls itself an industry, but it’s not an industry – it doesn’t produce goods, products, actual tangible things.

“It is an economy, though, and it’s one that pulls the guts out of local communities (look at places like Venice and Barcelona) and out of the environment.

“You can’t have sustainable tourism without a sustainable transport system, and we’re very far away from transporting people in any real numbers at speed, and over any real distances, using only renewable energy – if we’ll ever even get there.

“And as for communities, look at Knysna, for example. It’s always marketing itself as a ‘green’ destination. Or it has in the last twenty years or so.

“In the ’80s, it had a mixed economy in which everybody had a job (leaving aside the fact that not all those jobs were available to all the inhabitants, but still…).

“But then we thought we’d turn Knysna into the Riviera of the country, thanks to tourism, which wanted to attract the 1%.

“And what happened? What we didn’t realise was that, in fact, we weren’t creating a tourism economy, we were creating a development economy, and you can only develop for so long. There’s only so much land you can build on, and if you overdevelop a destination, you rob it of its unique attractions. Still, we used the argument (amongst others) that this estate would benefit tourism, or that that new shopping mall would benefit tourism… when in the end they only served to raise the income of the municipality through rates and taxes. Those hundreds, even thousands of tourism jobs that we were promised by various deevelopers never materialised. Well, not to the extent we were promised, at least.

“So what I’m saying is, tourism does massive greenwashing exercises to achieve what it wants. And it’s dangerously Neo-Liberal in the way it drives the very rich (owners and shareholders) in the opposite direction of most of their employees, many of whom still earn sub-standards wages, work long hours, and can’t afford the basics.

“That in itself is a recipe for disaster.  I think most trips are less about business and more about ego. Most of us travel only to satisfy our egos, and that’s damaging the planet.

“You want truly sustainable tourism? Try putting on a backpack and going for a walk from your front door. You’ll have minimal impact on the environment, and you can discover as much about yourself in your own neighbourhood as you can on some beach in Benidorm.

“And these days you can see the world without leaving your home.  New places do open your eyes: I took an 8,000 km journey on the Trans-Siberian Express in 30 minutes last night on YouTube, and learned a lot about Russia, Mongolia and China.”

Given that tourism will probably always be with us (despite his reservations), Martin points to an entrenched problem for us in South Africa: “We don’t really know how to ‘do tourism,’ because tourism’s always been reserved in a way for the wealthy.

“Also, we underestimate the legacy of apartheid. It created generations of fatherless children: fathers (and many mothers) would leave home to go to work on the mines and in the cities – and that was it. That was travel for millions of South Africans. Getting to the mines and back. And that meant that millions of peoples’ only experience of travel was negative. It wasn’t a nice, fun thing to do.

“So how do we change that entrenched perception? That’s what we should be asking before we ask people to take a Sh’ot Left.

“That’s what we need to do before we con ourselves into thinking that we ‘do tourism’.”

At 61, though, Martin hasn’t stopped dreaming. He says he’s become a fan of the author and lecturer Simon Sinek (‘Start with Why,’ ‘Leaders Eat Last,’ and ‘The Infinite Game’).

“Sinek talks about setting out after a dream that’ll always be bigger than what you can actually attain. And that’s what Project Reforester is all about.

“We don’t really know where we’re going to go with it yet, but as they say in the eastern tradtion: ‘the path will reveal itself when you begin walking on it’ — and I think it’s a path worth following.”

CapeInfo will support Project Reforester in any way we can. More importantly, I’d love to find a way to keep Martin blogging, stirring debate, and sharing his ideas and readings, so that he can start to find that new path.  Don’t you agree?

Find Martin at www.tourismcontent.co.za
Visit Project Reforester on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ProjectReforester/

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