I visited London, Paris and Washington DC over the last two weeks, the latter two for the first time. These are some of the world’s greatest cities, and for good reason: they are the important political and economic centres of three leading world powers. But these cities are more than just administrative and commercial hubs: they are also repositories of humanity’s historical and cultural treasures, which is why millions of tourists flock there every year. (London and Paris are number two and three on the 2013 MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index of most visited cities in the world.) This can, of course, be a real irritation: while the gardens of Versailles are worth a visit, the sheep-to-the-slaughter experience inside the Palace detracts from the experience. As harsh as it may sound, the high demand warrants higher ticket prices (already at a hefty R300 per person) in order to reduce the sheer number of visitors.

Visiting these wonderful museums – the British Museum, the Louvre, the Natural History Museum – and architectural wonders – the Houses of Parliament, the Pantheon in Paris, and my favourite, the Library of Congress – also raises an intriguing question: are they economically viable? In other words, aside from the immense cultural (and scientific) value in protecting our collective history, do these monuments attract a higher number of tourists to justify 1) their maintenance and 2) building more of them? If London did not have the Big Ben, or Paris the Eiffel Tower, or Washington the Lincoln Memorial, would tourism numbers be significantly lower?

I suspect so. In earlier work I found that a larger number of cultural heritage sites (as defined by UNESCO) is strongly positive correlated with higher tourism numbers. Yet this is an area that requires much more attention from scholars and policy-makers, simply because tourism is now such a large (and still growing) sector. The World Travel and Tourism Council report, for example, that 1 out of 11 jobs in the world is in the tourism industry. Tourism is 9% of global GDP, and 5% of exports. In South Africa, the tourism sector is double the size of agriculture.
If monuments drive tourist numbers, why aren’t we building more of the stuff? South Africa could do with a few more. Walking through the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials in Washington DC, I kept thinking: South Africa is home to two of the world’s greatest moral leaders, the Jefferson and Lincoln of the twentieth century. Yet all we can do is name a bridge and a boulevard after Madiba. Johannesburg is home to an impressive Apartheid Museum, yes, and Cape Town’s District Six museum tells the stories of South Africa’s period of forced racial segregation. But is that really enough?

So why not build a monument to celebrate freedom, equality or diversity on Robben Island? Robben Island is a sacred place, it’s history dates back to the 17th century when the Dutch imprisoned Autshumao (Harry die strandloper; by the way, where is his statue?). So protect and cherish the cell in which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, and the quarry where he and the other prisoners laboured. But augment the island’s visitor appeal by building an architectural monument masterpiece too, visible from Cape Town, which could not only draw new and returning tourists to our shores, but also provide South Africans with a permanent, visible reminder of those who struggled for freedom.The Voortrekker Monument, for example, attracted 44000 Chinese tourists last year. Forty-four thousand! (Apparently the Chinese share a solidarity with the history of the Afrikaner. Who would have thought?) That’s not the point, though: 44000 additional Chinese visitors to South Africa create jobs and boost incomes (and at R50 a ticket, also significant revenue for the monument itself).

While Madiba is our icon, there are others to celebrate too. Walking through the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, I wondered why we have not built a Museum or Monument for the Khoesan (which can double-up as a cultural centre for promoting the Khoesan language). But perhaps South African history is too divisive. So let’s build monuments to celebrate our recent achievements and tragedies, like the first democratic elections, or the millions who have been infected or affected by HIV/Aids, or the 1995 victory of the Rugby World Cup, or in memory of the Marikana tragedy. Where are the statues of world-famous South Africans like Mark Shuttleworth (first African in space), JM Coetzee (winner of Nobel prize in literature), Miriam Makeba (singer), or Brian Habana (most test tries for South Africa)? And perhaps in building Nkandla, president Zuma should have considered that many thousands of tourists may be keen to visit a traditional Zulu palace. I hope they plan frequent walking tours of the complex and advertise it on TripAdvisor.

Monuments preserve our past and inspire our future. They also attract tourists that drive economic growth. We need more of them.