Eco-tourism: Africa’s Gateway To Economic Development

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Eco-tourism – a popular term and often misunderstood, can be described as a responsible way to travel without impacting on the environment in any negative way, while simultaneously benefitting the welfare of local population and conserving the environment. The harmonious mix of conservation, travel and a continuing beneficial relationship that ensues with local people would be an apt way to encapsulate
the concept of ecotourism.

However, some will say that driving through a game reserve and gawking at animals does not an ecotourist make, unless it benefits the local people or raises awareness or even funds that will ultimately be ploughed back into sustainable projects that contribute towards the longevity of both man and environment. The proliferation of looming extinctions of animals species such as black rhinos, African wild dogs, Blue cranes to name but a few, contributed towards a massive paradigm shift in the way that governments, society and the private sector viewed the environment, specifically with regard to preserving and enhancing current living conditions for both animal and man.

Some early ecotourism efforts were fraught with human conflict, however noble the initial intentions were. Tribes were moved off their traditional pastoral lands to make way for bigger and new national game parks. Tanzania and Kenya in particular went through a full circle metamorphosis when short sighted attempts at preserving animal space were in direct conflict with the Maasai tribes living on the same land. This resulted in illegal poaching and hunting when these tribes could not let their own livestock graze in the same areas, where wild game roamed.

Environmentalists and conservationists had to find a way to both preserve and enhance the way of life of all living creatures, including man, juxtaposed against the pace of progress and demands of the 21st century.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that if local people were given a stake and could participate in the positive benefits that tourism has to offer, that they would appreciate the value and opportunities that tourism and wildlife present by upholding and preserving the very same wild animals who were seemingly in conflict with them. It is those past significant efforts that have brought about a wide acceptance and way of life, where both man, animal and enterprise may engage in a long- term symbiotic relationship.

Chief Marketing Officer Chris Roche from Wilderness Safaris, Africa’s largest safari lodge operator: “Tourism without the tenets of ecotourism does not maximise the benefits that accrue to local rural people and biodiversity conservation. In the African context, this revenue stream share is critical. If we – as an industry, and as government and society – do not promote this approach, we run the risk of alienating rural people on whose goodwill protected areas depend, and on which ecosystem functioning in turn depends, which in turn has a dramatic influence on the well-being of our own species, whether we are urbanised or not.”

“One might view this as a ‘new capitalism’, it ensures a more equitable distribution of revenue and one that takes cognisance of elements such as environmental or social costs and acts to mitigate and even reverse these. It is, in our view, a really important part of the long-term development solution for Africa … one that has adapted to being uniquely African in many senses and which the rest of the world now looks to employ in their own rural and protected areas.”


Without a doubt, there are countless programmes currently, which would qualify under the term ecotourism. In north central Tanzania, the Hadzabe people are hired as hunting guides for safari companies with their interests being looked after by the Hadzabe Survival Council, a NGO with members representing the various tribes, which promotes the survival of the Hadzabe culture and safeguards the rights of their communities to their primary resources such as land and water. On the great island of Madagascar, some 50% of the entrance fees from park authorities is handed over to local communities for sustainable development projects.

In Rwanda, the Akagera Park region is managed by a multinational non-profit called African Parks, using a business model to make conservation profitable and sustainable. Then again there is great story of the mountain gorillas, where numerous “Eco-lodges” and resorts have been built around Volcanoes National Park utilising local/natural materials such as volcanic stones, bamboo and wood to blend with the environment. These projects have no doubt made local communities realise the value of the indigeneous mountain gorillas. The Rwanda Development Board and Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is involved in channelling funds for local schools such as the Gatebe Primary school. In 2015, the Bisate Learning Centre in Musanze was launched and to date has over 2300 students.

Numerous countries in Africa have embarked on models of ecotourism initiatives because they have realised the value and potential that responsible ecotourism bring to their country in terms of economic, conservation and community benefits. Mark Roche, whose company Wilderness Safaris have several big ecotourism projects across Africa say: “Those countries that have achieved the most progress in this regard are typically those countries that had some foundation of nature-based tourism (e.g. ‘safari’) and associated international brand with which to work, these include the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and then the southern African countries of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.”

“Botswana in particular has shown how important it is to have a long-term (and dynamic and responsive) view on the legislative environment and how this can both protect natural and cultural heritage as well as enable private sector investment and the revenue cascade that comes with employment, training, procurement, transport and associated services. In recent years, this legislative evolution and responsiveness has extended to a world-respected eco-grading certification system.” “The Botswana model is essentially based on low volume, high-end tourism that has high conservation and social benefits. The bedrock of this model is the land use framework that exists with regard to Wildlife Management Areas and the concession system, whereby private sector companies are able – within a strictly regulated structure – to unlock commercial value in the natural estate. “

Manuel Bollmann, a GIZ Integrated Expert at Fair Trade Tourism (GIZ is Germany’s biggest government donor agency) confirms this: “Botswana which already adopted its own ecotourism strategy 15 years ago, which is done especially through very strict regulation targeting the ecological safeguarding of their natural heritage and a certification system similar to FTT and administered by the Botswana Tourism Organisation”.
According to Chris Roche, the much touted community conservancy system enacted in 1998 in Namibia uses the foundation of land use enabling rural communities to form democratically elected bodies that can then exercise commercial rights over wildlife occurring on community land. This was and is an important catalyst for private sector engagement to be involved with the community directly.

“Namibia also has an ecotourism/sustainability assessment system and standard. The net result has been broken down to something as simple as giving wildlife a value that is tangible to rural people. Prior to that wildlife represented only a cost and a threat, or alternatively an illegal value. It is no exaggeration to say that a total change has taken place in this very large area with regard to community attitudes to wildlife.” Yet, most positive ecotourism and conservation intentions will eventually fail if political will is lacking. Both Namibia and Botswana created the necessary regulatory environment through legislation, “which both facilitates and regulates the behaviour of the private sector, who are then able to bring capital, entrepreneurship and other skills to unlock commercial potential in a way, which benefits both biodiversity conservation, as well as rural community empowerment and provides expanded economic stimulation as well as a tax base for the ultimate benefit of central government,” says Chris Roche.

Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary Ngamba Island is part of the Koome group of islands located in Lake Victoria. The Chimpanzee Sanctuary Project has been able to give back to the community on the island by building schools and supporting other community based initiatives.
Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary Ngamba Island is part of the Koome group of islands located in Lake Victoria. The Chimpanzee Sanctuary Project has been able to give back to the community on the island by building schools and supporting other community based initiatives.

Looking critically at how successful ecotourism projects are in terms of economic benefits filtering down towards local communities who live in these “ecotourism” destinations, one could conservatively argue that in the grand scale of things – the “successes” may not be really that successful. The Kruger Park in South Africa, according to SANParks, benefits 40 000 livelihoods – an “impressive” figure, but in fact there are well over 3 million people living alongside the park’s border in South Africa. Manuel Bollmann says: “The private sector has certainly driven ecotourism more effectively over the past decades – but not the entire industry, rather a minority of both small and bigger players in it. One could mention Wilderness Safaris and &Beyond for example, but there are also much smaller companies with impressive track records and genuine “Ecotourism” operations such as the Umlani Bushcamp in the Timbavati or !Xaus Lodge in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.”

“There is also only so much the private sector can be burdened with in terms of social inclusion. At some point further “beyond the lodge fences”, government needs to take responsibility. Also, there is a danger of the private sector and NGOs “doing too much”, with government increasingly feeling that this is none of its own business.”
This is, of course, another debate altogether – whose responsibility is it, how much from whom, the list goes on. It is fair to say that although ecotourism is a fashionable word open to interpretation among tourism stakeholders, certain measurable success does exist. From the Shamwari Game Reserve’s efforts to incorporate the local community through education and work opportunities, to the famous Coffee Shack in the Eastern Cape, a budget backpacker hostel that has devolved 30% in shares to the local Tshezi Community Trust, numerous local communities are benefitting in one way or another, albeit not always scientifically measurable.

When it comes to the actual tourists, we asked stakeholders if tourists are truly concerned and aware of the benefits of ecotourism. Chris Roche from Wilderness Safaris:” Ecotourism is a much abused term that has been used to describe a wide array of activities and so even though it is a familiar concept and term to people, it is unlikely that it is understood to any great degree of sophistication by the majority of travellers. As a result, they are not always aware of the full extent of the positive impact of true ecotourism and thus are not emotionally connected to its purpose. “ However, Chris does say that they are “seeing a shift by our own guests and travellers to a more sophisticated and demanding understanding of ecotourism that is very much beginning to hold all self-proclaimed ecotourism operators to account. This is very positive for the industry.”

Interestingly, Manuel Bollmann from Fair Trade Tourism (FTT) offered another insight into this aspect: ”Both research and private sector accounts confirm that sustainability (let’s not call it ecotourism) plays little or no role in initial booking decisions. It does, however, matter greatly for return and referrals. This is part of the success of groups such as Wilderness Safaris . They have such high returns quotas precisely because tourists have experienced the authenticity of their efforts to make their travel experience as sustainable as possible. They (tourists) do not have negative thoughts of having done more bad than good to nature. While Fair Trade Tourism (FTT) engages strongly in raising awareness in the market place about sustainable tourism, we know that tourists mostly need to experience the good, the bad and the ugly of true or feigned “ecotourism” at the destination itself. It is difficult to grasp this as a concept if you are an international tourist and you are browsing through your online booking platform somewhere in Europe or America.”

Some polls show that up to 85% of tourists prefer to do no damage to the environment, but that does not necessarily mean that they understand and fully appreciate what is meant by ecotourism.
The question remains: How beneficial can ecotourism be? Is it one of Africa’s gateways to economic development? On the surface one might say yes, but juxtapose this against issues such as local versus foreign involvement. Do foreign initiatives get hamstrung by involving and incorporating community decision makers, or vice versa? How much legislation has been done and is still needed to further enhance the growth of ecotourism, while simultaneously safeguarding the interests of all parties? Does cultural authenticity get compromised and are local communities vulnerable to external influences that are in conflict with their own central beliefs for the sake of economic growth?

These quandaries plus the on-going management and maintenance of a country’s ecotourism framework, where everyone should have a fair place in the sun, present but a handful of challenges that will require very careful manoeuvring from all partners involved. Challenges abound, however, Africa is on the move with certain countries leading the ecotourism trail. According to Ms Morongoe Ramphele, Deputy Director General: Tourism Sector Support Services at the Department of Tourism South Africa: ”Some countries have also developed guidelines and standards to support ecotourism or responsible tourism. Countries such as Seychelles, Namibia, Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana have ecotourism as central pillars of the tourism strategies.

The majority of African governments are members of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation and support global efforts that seek to promote ecotourism, such as; the United Nations General Assembly declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. A full year was dedicated to celebrate and promote the contribution of the tourism sector to building a better world. Secondly, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) plus the UNWTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism (GCET) is a comprehensive set of principles designed to guide key-players in tourism development. Lastly, the 10-Year Framework of Programme on Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns is a global framework for action to accelerate the shift towards Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) in both developed and developing countries.”

Tanzania, Rwanda, Madagascar, Cote d’Ivoire, Malawi, Ethiopia and Benin all have aspects of ecotourism as well.
There is one certainty – it will take some time for Africa’s ecotourism industry to stand on its own two feet. The dependence on external partners and investors, whether they come from the West or the East, is not only a reality, but also a necessity. Within this quagmire of legal, cultural, procedural and mutually beneficial partnerships lies a delicate balance of scales that will need careful maintenance, lest the equilibrium be disturbed and the scales tip to one side to the detriment of the other side.

This article was written by : BRUCE GERMAINE.

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About Author

Born in Zimbabwe and living in South Africa, Miriro is a seasoned publishing editor and writer, having worked with leading brands in investment, business leadership and entrepreneurship. Passionate about Africa’s development, Miriro is also a dynamic marketing consultant with 10 years experience working with startups and large multinational corporations. With a heart for travel, Miriro spends her time discovering the nooks of crannies of Africa’s hidden gems, taking the roads less travelled, meeting the beautiful people and enjoying their food and culture. She enjoys tackling complex strategic challenges in the passion-to-entrepreneurship pipeline, particularly focused on the implications of 4th Industrial Revolution and workforce automation on Africa's travel and tourism industry. Miriro is currently the Managing Editor of Nomad Africa magazine.

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