Small things make a big difference

Sarah’s bunkmate, Melanie, who was the only South African at our EcoTraining camps (except the guides) and another great ambassador to South Africa.

By Sarah Sortum, Ecotourism manager at Calamus Outfitters and Great Plains Ecotourism Coalition Consultant 

In my recent travels to South Africa and Namibia, I experienced wonderful professional customer service and hospitality. Looking back, it was the seemingly small acts of kindness that I appreciated most. These small acts made a big difference in my experience and helped shape my overall impression of the people, culture, and destination. It drove home the power of individual actions that add up to equal an entire guest experience.

A couple acts of kindness stand out for me. The first took place in Tambo International Airport upon my arrival in Johannesburg. I had just navigated customs, baggage claim and exchanging money. I was tired from the long flight, nervous about being in an unfamiliar country and traveling by myself. As I walked out of the airport interior I met chaos. I was overwhelmed by a mass of signs and people yelling the names of destinations, pick-ups and taxi services. As I walked to the exit doors, I looked for a sign or any information that would point me to the bus terminal to catch my shuttle. I couldn’t find anything or anyone. As I stood there looking around (telling myself to remain calm), a young man approached me and asked if I needed assistance.

It was plain to see that he was a taxi driver, and I was immediately relieved he had asked if I needed help instead of trying to sell me a taxi ride. After explaining that I was looking for the bus terminal he volunteered to walk me there, even though he knew I would not be requiring a taxi. After reaching the bus terminal, he found the security guard in charge and let him know which shuttle I was waiting for before wishing me a nice day and returning to the airport to find customers for his taxi. That was my first impression of South Africa. I appreciated his kind approach, caring demeanor, and willingness to assist me even though I would not be using his specific service. This first impression helped me feel more at ease and confident in a new place.

My second random act of kindness occurred shortly after meeting the taxi driver. While waiting in the bus terminal, I noticed the security guard the taxi driver spoke to when I arrived kept glancing in my direction. At first I wasn’t sure why. Was he making sure I was still there? Had I missed my shuttle and he was annoyed with me? Perhaps the taxi driver told him I was alone and an easy target? Needless to say, my imagination was starting to run wild.

Soon, the security guard slowly approached the bench I was sitting on. I offered a nervous smile. He smiled back and without a word grabbed my bags that I had ill-advisedly placed on the end of the bench and wheeled them around to the inside of the bench.  He patted the bags, gave me a wink and walked away. I immediately realized that he had been nervous about where I had placed my bags…they would have been an easy target if someone would have wanted to take advantage. He placed them in a safer place without making me feel foolish or attracting extra attention. My impression of South Africans was pretty much sealed now!

There were other small acts of kindness that helped make my trip more enjoyable, safer and memorable. I will be eternally grateful to those people, especially the ones whose names I don’t know and will never encounter again, who took the time to be kind. I could explain their acts away by pointing out that they understand tourist’s equal dollars, and that would be true. But I think it shows that kindness clearly communicates across different languages, borders and cultures, reminding us of our shared humanity.

For me, kindness while traveling trumped any fine accommodation or fancy meal and made me feel like a visitor turned friend rather than a temporary tourist. Bottom line, it’s the easiest and most important item we can offer, with exponential returns.