After four years of trying to find the right building, tourism entrepreneur and maverick Bheki Dube finally opened a hybrid hotel in Cape Town. Welcome Lishivha spoke to him about his entrepreneurial journey and his plans to take over the hospitality industry in Africa.
Bheki Dube’s Curiocity Backpackers is now operating in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, with plans on the horizon to expand to the Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng, and the rest of the continent.
Dube told #Trending that getting his foot into Cape Town with a hybrid hotel, an establishment that fuses elements of a hostel and a hotel, at the Green Point leisure district in November last year was no easy fit.
“There are few black property owners, especially in the tourism industry. You are undermined based on the colour of your skin. Whiteness has managed to keep people who look like me from purchasing property.
“Property prices in Cape Town are also unrealistically high. The international investment community has messed up property rates such that people are buying properties at rates that far exceed what the market demands.
“As a black newcomer in that space, it is almost impossible to compete. This is why it is important for me to be in Cape Town. I want to decolonise these spaces by reshaping how people travel in Africa and inspire the upcoming generation to know that they too can break into such markets,” Dube explains heartily.
The hybrid hotel offers luxury private rooms alongside shared suites in a set-up that is quite different from the Backpackers in Johannesburg and Durban, which opened in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Both are located in vibrant city centres which have undergone rejuvenation.
Curiocity Cape Town offers a more tranquil experience. Sandwiched between the up-market Clifton and Camps Bay, it offers easy access to the beach front and is a stone’s throw away from Green Point Common.
“People spend three nights in Joburg, two nights in Durban and two weeks in Cape Town, which is why having a foot in Cape Town and every major tourist destination in Africa remains a long-term goal for Curiocity,” says Dube, adding that each location offers tours and experiences that are unique to that destination.
A pioneer in the backpacking industry, Dube plans to further penetrate the tourism market. He tells me that when he started out with walking tours at 16 years old, he didn’t anticipate this level of success at age 27.
Dube grew up in Troyeville, Johannesburg, in a building called Barrel Court, which was home to artists, socialists and rebels of the apartheid state.
Being surrounded by conscious thinkers and creatives shifted something in him, allowing him the ability to envision a future for himself that was outside typical professions such as medicine and teaching.
“I could look up to people like Peter Makurube and think to myself: ‘Here is a writer who has travelled the world and knows Africa better than anyone I know,’” Dube says about growing up.
His childhood inspired something else in him – the drive to become financially sustainable.
“Some of the artists I knew would be acclaimed but have nothing in the fridge, and I was always bothered by these people around me who had such wealth of knowledge but did not have financial sustenance,” he says.
On completing high school, Dube studied photojournalism at The Market Photo Workshop. He focused on his studies during the day and hosted film screenings at The Bioscope in Maboneng in the evenings.
It was around this time that he made friends with people from different parts of the world, who were travelling in Johannesburg.
Dube would offer to show them around whenever they visited the city, even when negative stereotypes about crime in Johannesburg were widespread among tourists.
He was passionate about giving people an authentic experience of Johannesburg, which for him meant experiencing the city on foot and hearing stories from locals such as entrepreneurs and creatives who lived in the city.
A clerk at Constitution Hill took notice of his walking tours and proposed to work with him in making the former prison complex’s art archive accessible through a walking tour called the Art and Justice Tour.
The project became an instant success, prompting Dube to start the next thing – picnics in the sky. On a Sunday you can grab a picnic basket and fill it with goodies at Market On Main on Fox Street before heading to the Carlton Centre Roof of Africa, 50 floors above ground, to enjoy an urban picnic with a view of the city skyline, while learning about the city’s history.
This initiative also proved successful, encouraging Dube to start formalising his business operations.
His interest in backpacking started after he met a girl who came on one of his tours and asked him to join her backpacking through Africa.
Unable to afford travelling the continent, he suggested they explore South Africa instead.
That backpacking experience proved to be more difficult than Dube expected because many establishments were not receptive towards him as a black person, he says.
“I realised that most of these spaces were run by old people. There was no sense of design, style or taste.
“So when I came back to Maboneng, I was already working on my tours and I started thinking seriously about bringing a backpackers to my neighbourhood, which was already going through an urban rejuvenation.
“I wanted to offer people who came on my tours a place to stay that had style and nice design elements to it,” he explains.
Call it divine timing and preparation, but his burst of energy and passion for starting his first backpackers yielded something when he met up with the developer of Maboneng, who liked his idea and offered to find him a building to get started.
“He saw my passion and invested in it even when I didn’t have balance sheets or experience in the industry.”
Dube opened his first Curiocity Backpackers in Johannesburg at age 21.
He will spend the next six months ensuring that the three sites are “doing hospitality the right way”, while preparing to announce a Curiocity wellness retreat seven months from now.
Dube shares that he is in talks with SA National Parks and other institutions about opening a new Curiocity Backpackers inside Kruger National Park, which would allow him to offer products in all major South African tourist destinations.
As for expanding into Africa, Dube has his sights on Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Mauritius and Morocco.
His long-term plan, by which he means “some time in the next 24 months”, is to start a black-owned hospitality fund that will support young and upcoming entrepreneurs in the hospitality industry ... without them having to beg white capital, he adds.