hroughout the calendar year, throughout the world, nations stop to mark days of significance – moments in time of the creation of the history of a nation, shaping the lives, lifestyles, values and future vision of its people.

Public Holidays. Days of national ‘pause’. Days meant for national reconnection to history, to meaning, to one another. Days where events are organised to celebrate, to commemorate, to reflect and to refocus.

Days to be still, because it is important to be aware.

Sadly, however, the business and busy-ness of everyday life has turned public holidays into simply days off. Dates on the calendar set aside for national/cultural/religious observance have become opportunities for people to get personal stuff done. To get some rest. To get things in order for when the pause button is released.

When the day arrives, however, we are reminded of the reason for the occasion…and often humbled by its depth of meaning. How could it’s original, collective intent have been lost by immediate, personal priorities? How could its purpose have been taken for granted? Especially when public holidays are set aside to ensure that the story of the history of a nation is shared generation after generation, by each and every person who is a stitch in the fabric of the nation.

Almost every nation in the world can look at its annual calendar and identity two to three public holidays set aside to bookmark important chapters of the story of the evolution of the country – as a place, as a people, as a spirit…and as hosts to travellers to our land who often arrive because of the remarkable stories of our past, and how they shape our future.

In losing the meaning behind public holidays, are we losing the importance of the storytelling?

One of the world’s strongest examples of the usage of public holidays as active, on-going reminders of the story of a nation’s progress is the re-structured calendar of South Africa.

On its liberation in 1994, then President Mandela and the national congress felt it imperative that the people of the new South Africa, and the people of the world, never forget all that the nation fought – the moments which shaped the stories of the struggle, important footprints along its long walk to freedom.

As a result seven new national public holidays were created, making it possible for South Africans (and its visitors) to come together throughout the year to mindfully salute and celebrate all that took place to take the nation forward.

Most notably:

  • March 21st: Human Rights Day – created to ensure that the people of South Africa are aware of their human rights and need to continuously honours and protect same.
  • April 27th: Freedom Day – celebrating the first democratic elections held in 1994 and the nation’s new constitution of 1997.
  • May 1st: Worker’s Day – commemorating the importance of workers and trade unions
  • June 16th, Youth Day, honouring the young people lost in the struggle against Apartheid and Bantu Education
  • August 9th: National Women’s Day – honouring the critical role which women played in keeping the struggle alive, and the importance of continuing to protect women as part of South Africa’s strength and future
  • September 24th: Heritage Day – celebrating the nation’s diversity of cultures, customs, traditions, histories, and languages
  • December 16th: Day of Reconciliation – a day to collectively, as a nation, reflect on the need to rise above conflicts of the past and continue to work together to build a new nation.

Still, dates on a calendar do not guarantee days of purposeful pause. Stories are words on the pages of a book until warm hands and hearts begin the storytelling.

The political leadership of a nation, particularly those in the Tourism sector, are perfectly positioned to be carriers of the stories which showcase the nation to its people and its visitors. With their profile and platform, leaders are able to ensure that understanding, appreciation and active commemoration occur, annually, with inspiration.

But this requires overt, organised and official commitment – commitment to lifting the dates off the calendar and into the hearts and minds of people, at home and across the world.

Interestingly, in making such a commitment the nation also makes it possible to create a new bouquet of traveller experiences. Through turning historical, cultural and religious public holidays into events, events which become national times of unity and celebration (whilst maintaining the essence of their meaning), a rich array of new tourism experience development opportunities are created to grow both international and domestic traveller numbers.

A natural Tourism sector growth opportunity.

But more importantly, a mechanism to keep the important stories of a nation alive.

And turning storytelling into a strategic lever for destination growth and development – in spirit, in unity, and in visitor numbers.

Copyright: ANITA MENDIRATTA 2010