Cashing in on the high end of budding cannabis tourism
Despite legal obstacles and controversy, the cannabis tourism industry in South Africa is budding. Most places remain discreet, but local and foreign tourists are staying at weed-friendly hotels, going on urban cannabis tours and participating in rural community-based cannabis adventures.
“If you’re a traveller who appreciates the heart that goes into growing quality green, who likes to sample new strains from around the world and who enjoys savouring a quiet moment with new friends at the end of a beautiful day … this is the tour for you,” says an online ad for a cannabis-friendly holiday package in Knysna.
Set against the glorious backdrop of the Garden Route and Little Karoo, Hello Adventure offers an over-21, weed-friendly – whether you partake or not – four-day package introducing a maximum of 10 visitors to the cannabis culture of the Garden Route. You get to meet a local social club that supports small home growers, meet the growers themselves and discover “the spiritual green” through a visit to a local Rastafarian community.
“Join us for a bespoke 420 experience and cannabis tour for the curious,” reads High Holidaze’s online offer. The much-loved tour operator now also offers a five-day tour in and around the cannabis community of Johannesburg, with accommodation at the Jazz Farm in the Magaliesberg. It’s a combination of weed, relaxation, urban culture, cooking and connecting.
“On our tours, tourists get to learn about our local history, arts and culture,” says Lorraine Keenan, who heads up High Holidaze. “They experience the friendliness for which South Africans are renowned. We use professional tour operators with an intimate knowledge of Jozi and its surroundings to show tourists the best of the city as well as having a curated cannabis experience.”
High Holidaze takes tours to Hartbeespoort Dam, the Cradle of Humankind, Maboneng and Johannesburg inner city, and has Soweto packages where you get to see the sights, enjoy a bicycle or tuk tuk tour, visit a local cannabis social club and spend the night. Tourists can stay at a grow farm and learn about the medicinal and healing aspects of cannabis, as well as meet activists and find out more about this healing plant.
“Of course, there are delicious, home-cooked traditional meals,” says Keenan, “and people can also sample special infused treats and nibbles, and learn about the alchemy of edibles.”
“Cannabis tourism is not on the mainstream radar at all,” says David Frost, CEO of the Southern African Tourism Association Service. “But it’s a fantastic opportunity to attract the millennial market, which is potentially huge. We really need to look at building new segments to bolster our destination and regain the confidence of long-haul travellers, especially since Covid.
“The millennial market is a robust one and comprises people of independent means and mind. If we get the millennials now, we [will have] them return again and again. And, importantly, cannabis tourism also means the proverbial tourism dollar going into rural areas where livelihoods are marginal,” Frost says.
South Africa is as famous for its weed as Jamaica or California. It has what is called in French wine terms, terroir. Character. As in, the earthy flavours and aromas that are imparted to the wine by the soil in which the grapes are grown, the specific habitat, farming methods and growing conditions.
Frost says cannabis-friendly rural adventure packages also have the potential to deliver “authentic and immersive experiences for millennials”, a connected holiday that will likely mean the traveller’s return.
In more than 17 states in the US, cannabis is legal and tourism is thriving. It’s a huge industry, estimated to be worth $90-billion by 2026, according to Forbes. Its research shows nearly 20% of all adult Americans qualify as cannabis-motivated travellers.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said in February this year that the overall cannabis industry has a potential value of R28-billion a year, and would greatly alleviate South Africa’s unemployment problem by creating 130,000 jobs. Cannabis has basically been decriminalised for personal use, but there’s legal ambiguity around trading.
“People are being discreet until there’s legal clarity,” says Keenan. “I think the timing is right, and it won’t be long before the cannabis tourism industry takes off. I see the market as being European, mainly curious travellers in the 18 to 35 age group.
“Obviously, the laws need to change. We need to take the stigma away from cannabis use and take the whole issue out of the gutter. It’s a beautiful, healing plant, deeply rooted in indigenous culture, and it should be introduced to the tourism industry as a wonderful way to connect with our culture and our country.”
The cannabis tourism people seem to be enthusiastically going ahead with their ventures, from a series of high-profile clubs in Johannesburg and the Cape to ganja-infused horse-riding adventures in Pondoland on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast.
There’s high hiking and stoned yoga around Tzaneen in Limpopo and edibles on offer at the mountain brewery. Youngsters are hanging out at Purple Haze Eco Lodge in Hogsback and getting high at Mary Jane’s House in KwaZulu-Natal.
“There is great potential for cannabis tourism to present our beautiful, diverse and amazing community of people to the world and showcase our incredible plants,” says Myrtle Clark of Green Fields for All. “Our tourism services are quite capable of delivering and attracting a new young market to SA.
“But we’ve been campaigning for over 11 years and we are at our wits’ end. There needs to be a ‘dagga commission’ in which civil society is consulted around the regulation of the entire cannabis industry,” she says.
“The government seems terrified of this plant. They still think we smoke the leaves. Everything is premised on the harm it may do. They need to catch up with the rest of the world. And stop arresting us.
“Our premise is simply that the world is a better place when weed is legal,” Clark says.
The biggest obstacle to the cannabis tourism industry is that no one is technically allowed to buy or sell weed.
What’s the point of going all the way to Pondoland for a ganja horse-riding adventure when you can’t get any? And what if that hip Kommetjie villa doesn’t leave a joint on your pillow after all?
Enter the cannabis social clubs (CSCs), which arose out of the 2018 Constitutional Court ruling that decriminalised personal cannabis use and possession within a private space. Even though the Proposed Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill was passed by Cabinet in August 2020, it is still to be considered by Parliament.
The law says you may not sell cannabis, but it also says you may be a member of a club, and, with that membership, you may enjoy the benefits of the club. So, you’re basically “making a contribution” to the other members; it’s never a sale.
CSCs are non-profit and members pay a monthly fee that entitles them to share and exchange – specific terminology that allows clubs to operate without breaking the law.
Although cannabis use, trade and control have been thrust into a state of legislative ambiguity, CSCs have created a social space for cannabis users to connect in a social setting. And to invite their friends and tourists, local and international.
CSCs could be a great way to kickstart sustainable tourism in rural areas, by connecting local communities to tourism services such as guiding, camping and hiking.
Although some fancy Cape Town CSCs ban alcohol and cigarettes, others, such as those in Limpopo, have club gatherings in the mountains where members listen to music and choose their weed from a “bud bar”. Other clubs are an exclusive online service that grows your weed plants for you.
As Big Pharma snaps up the rights to the medicinal uses of cannabis, the cannabis community, often run by women, is directing the market into a wellness, organic, consumer-friendly territory. Women are shaping safe spaces for both the cannabis curious and experienced to enjoy the plant.
There is massive scope for small business development: “Cannabis social clubs need serious consideration as a potentially innovative business model,” says Maryke Steynvaart, a master’s student at the University of Pretoria with a research interest in emergent cannabis distribution networks across South Africa.
“Furthermore, it presents financial and small business opportunities to citizens and avenues of taxation for the state.
“There is high potential for making a positive socioeconomic impact through stimulating the economy with small-scale businesses. This includes the thousands of existing cannabis growers who can then contribute to the legal economy.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.