A community response to the problem of crime in South Africa has been mobilised to make tourists feel safer too. Travel Buddy is a network of volunteers who look out for travellers, welcoming and advising them and, most of all, making sure they are safe.
Travel Buddy also enables tourists to tap into an electronic messaging system - eBlockwatch - that alerts its members to incidents of crime and danger zones.
eBlockwatch links around 11 000 members around the country - including police, neighbourhood watches, industries and the general public - via SMS and e-mail.
eBlockwatch was started in 2001 by Johannesburg businessman Andre Snyman, owner of a truck company, who uses SMS to manage his trucks - and realised that the system could be harnessed to mobilise communities in the fight against crime.
SMSs and e-mail messages
eBlockwatch members receive regular SMSs on their cell phones and e-mails of criminal incidents or warnings of potential crime in areas where they are registered.
Travel Buddy was formed in 2003 to give the thousands of tourists pouring into the country the same peace of mind. Through the scheme, tourists are also experiencing the warmth of South African hospitality, with many Travel Buddy members taking extra steps to make them feel welcome.
This is how it works: before leaving their home country, tourists register for free on the Travel Buddy website, providing their itinerary details. When they arrive in South Africa, they buy a local SIM card for their cell phone (or a hired phone), contact Travel Buddy and get a phone number to use in emergencies.
Throughout a visitor's stay, someone will call or send a text message asking how things are going.
The tourists are given an international tourist call centre number, and receive regular SMSs. Travel Buddy monitors tourists' movements throughout their trip, provides them with details of local tourist information centres, and advises them on where to "stop, shop, rock and drop".
"If at any time you are in need of assistance, you call the emergency number and we will alert those members of eBlockwatch and request that they come to your assistance", says the Travel Buddy website. "You will also be given local police details.
"Depending on the severity of the emergency, SA Travel Buddy will inform all relevant government, South African Police, and South African Tourist Association members who are responsible for the safety of international visitors.
"Although no reaction is guaranteed, this project will provide a useful link to a spirited community who would like to contribute to an enjoyable stay in South Africa.
Real SA hospitality
"We here in South Africa want you to realise that every international visitor is of great importance to our country. We want you to experience real South African hospitality."
The Automobile Association is encouraging hotels and B&Bs in its travel guide to sign up with the system, and Travel Buddy now has members spread across the country.
Many members have gone out of their way to make tourists feel safe and welcome, and several visitors have reported positive experiences with Travel Buddy. According to an article in the Sunday Times, the Lockyear family was nervous about travelling to SA after a tourist was shot dead in Mpumalanga in October 2002.
"Throughout their Christmas holiday, during which they travelled from Joburg to Mozambique and around the coast to Cape Town, they received regular calls from concerned South Africans who had their itinerary and gave them advice ranging from which roads to use to where to eat."
A group of Canadian volunteer teachers who came to teach in Alexandra township in Johannesburg in 2003 had a safe and much enriched experience thanks to their Travel Buddy, Bulldog Rathokolo, who organised 10 of his neighbourhood watch members to keep an eye out for them.
According to the Sunday Times: "Not only were they safe, but other members of Travel Buddy even offered Schmidt's staff free horse riding trips on their days off.
"And during their stay in the township, Rathokolo and his men organised street parties for the students and a farewell bash at an Alexandra home where they slaughtered a sheep for the visitors."