Ecotourism In Africa : Truly Beneficial?

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The term ‘ecotourism,’ or ecological tourism, was allegedly coined in the early nineties by Mexican Architect Héctor Ceballos-Lascuráin whilst campaigning for wetland conservation in his native country. He claimed that he was the first individual to define a type of tourism, which specifically benefitted the environment.

Some sceptics believe the term was already being used as far back as 1965, when adventure-enthusiast and Californian-born Claus-Dieter (Nick) Hetzer pioneered ecotours in the Yucatán. Fast-forward to the present day, what relevance does this term have to the African continent, and is this form of tourism actually benefitting economies, the environment and local communities?

Not only are there mixed reviews about who defined ecotourism first; there are mixed feelings about whether the word itself is an oxymoron, lending to the fact that tourism leaves a human stain on previously untouched and pristine ecosystems. Adventure tourism is the number one motivation for travel. Today, tourists want to explore unchartered territory, to experience new adventures and see unspoilt locations. Ironically, these environments are the most fragile and susceptible to human interference. Further to that, there is confusion about the type of tourism the term includes. Strictly speaking, ecotourism is a type of tourism including travel to natural environments in such a way that minimises the human footprint on the area, travel which actually benefits the local communities and in turn, incentivises them to maintain the condition of the environment. Ecotourism is intended to offer tourists insight into the impact of human beings on the environment, that which requires the lowest possible consumption of natural resources; and travel which gains a greater appreciation of natural habitats, whilst respecting local cultures.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to this type of tourism. An advantage of the trend is that more and more eco-conscious travellers can feel they are part of something bigger and can actively contribute to their destination of choice. Visitors to African countries, in particular, can experience relatively untouched natural wonders and support the indigenous people in many ways. Not only should ecotourism revenue trickle down into communities (known as the multiplier effect), but it aims to preserve traditions and cultures that would otherwise be lost in time. Many tourists actively seek to experience interacting with local communities, and numerous establishments now offer packages including village tours and cultural heritage sites. If monitored correctly, ecotourism establishments can make a positive contribution and try to minimise the impact of human interference; pollution; loss of habitat and monitoring vital water sources.

One disadvantage is that it has now become trendy for tourism companies and lodgings to describe their establishment as being actively involved in sustainable tourism, green tourism or responsible tourism; whereas sometimes – sadly – their operations couldn’t be further from the truth of responsible tourism and it is used purely as a marketing tool. True ecotourism, in every sense of the word, has the added vital component: Evidence of economic and social benefits empowering local communities and proven solutions benefitting the environment. Environmentalists argue that no matter how ‘green’ an establishment is, it will still have an effect on the surrounding ecosystem. Many of the areas used for ecotourism in African countries are owned by International investors, limiting the actual profit driven into local communities.


In Kenya and Tanzania, the Masai people were relocated by government to the outskirts of national parks formed for ecotourism, where over 70% of the area was previously Masai territory. The relocation has meant that locals and animals come into conflict often and even the smallest increase in population places pressure on the environment and resources. Many establishments employ better-educated workers from large cities instead of employing locals, which is referred to as ‘Pseudo-ecotourism.’ Large quantities of ecotourism operations are left unmonitored and do not meet conservation requirements, resulting in conflict over land and resources. Communities are left without infrastructure and lack adequate sanitation facilities, resulting in water sources being contaminated and local people, livestock and wildlife falling ill or perishing.

Despite varying opinions of its ethical contribution, the ecotourism sector is the fastest growing sector, increasing annually between 10 – 15%. It is the second largest industry on the African continent after mining and for the majority of developing countries, it is the primary source of foreign exchange. Although no precise figures exist, it is estimated that around 15 or 20% of all international tourism is ecotourism. Although African countries are still in development, the continent is ahead of the globe in this particular sector. Paving the way before others does come with risk, but also provides a platform from which to share experiences and case-studies as a guidance tool for international practice. The Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference (ESTC) is an annual event hosted by The International Ecotourism Society, (TIES) aimed at sharing sustainability goals, solutions and ideas. With over 100 African village representatives attending, the 2014 event was hosted in Nairobi, Kenya and it showcased the importance of alleviating poverty, while protecting the environment.

Conferences and tradeshows are just one of the platforms the African tourism community is taking advantage of to promote innovation in empowering women, improving community welfare and preserving nature. Botswana hosted the 2016 ESTC event, showcasing the success of the ‘Botswana Ecotourism Certification System’. Developed in 2009 alongside the University of Botswana, the accreditation system combines performance milestones, including cultural safeguarding; community upliftment and environmental preservation. The sustainability project has the support of the Botswana Government, which has applied standards to fund tourism development in rural communities.

Ecotourism Kenya (IK) is another organisation dedicated not only to multiple community development projects, but to building a governing body of all tourism operators in the region. The society has achieved many goals in energy management; waste management; human-wildlife conflict resolution and water conservation and hosts the ‘Eco-Warrior Awards’, to reward achievements by businesses in the tourism industry. IK developed a flagship ‘Standards and Best Practices Programme’ to rate facilities using a gold, silver and bronze status of accreditation in responsible tourism, the first of its kind in East Africa. Organisations such as these are setting a high standard for African countries and the rest of the world. The certification scheme currently allows voluntary participation for all accommodation facilities in Kenya, outlining areas known as ‘green destinations’. Voluntary certification is the first step towards achieving compliance, which could lead to compulsory certification in years to come.

The World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi has spearheaded a project using bamboo to clean up wastewater from community settlements, which would benefit both villages and bamboo farmers. One such opportunity is the use of bamboo in the Kibera slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, which is inhabited by over a million people. Bamboo grows faster than trees and produces 35% more oxygen than trees covering a similar area. Bamboo burns more efficiently than charcoal with less impact on the environment, and Kibera slum communities are now developing bamboo woodlots as a source of fuel. Initiatives such as these may provide solutions for deforestation sub-Saharan Africa.

Tanzania is a popular ecotourism destination and is home to Mount Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which is one of the oldest ecosystems on Earth. Companies such as Summit Expeditions and Nomadic Experience have created ecotourism operations to minimise tourist arrivals and are members of the organisation ‘Leave No Trace.’ The company is committed to preserving the area by reducing the human footprint on Kilimanjaro expeditions and safaris. Another successful case study is the Strawberry Fields Eco Lodge in Konso, Ethiopia, where Konso community members are employed to lead tour groups and teach workshops about permaculture and the effects of tourism on the environment.

The Rural Development Centre in Belo, Cameroon, is another organisation heavily invested in community empowerment and conservation, providing employment and skills training for underprivileged locals, all of which promote natural conservation. Nigeria is just one of the eighteen-member African countries belonging to The Sustainable Tourism Certification Alliance Africa, a body of committed sustainable tourism certification members dedicated to streamlining ecotourism certification across Africa. The alliances’ key focus is to set an ‘African standard’ with which to implement a collaborative certification system instead of isolated systems per country. An increased customer demand for certified establishments could be a key factor in phasing out tourism businesses operating under false pretence of green practices. A country rich in natural parks and biodiversity, the region has wide opportunity for nature-based tourism activities, with national parks covering 20,156km2, or 3% of the total land area.

Nigeria Travel Week (NTW), in conjunction with Avantgarde Tours Limited, Afro Tourism West Africa Limited and Rewards Travels and Tours Limited is a tradeshow aimed at promoting the ‘Africans travelling Africa’ campaign. Efetobo Awhana, Managing Director of Avantgarde Tours Limited revealed that NTW is placing heavy focus on domestic tourism to create 2,000,000 jobs by 2022 in an effort to fight poverty and preserve tourist attractions. Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode’s mandate is to encourage sustainable tourism to drive growth, while monitoring social, economic and environmental impacts. The Nigerian Conservation Foundation (NCF) is working in collaboration with Lagos State Government in projects including an annual Walk for Nature event promoting awareness about environmental protection and community sustainability.

Addressing event attendees, the Governor pointed out that ecotourism has to meet visitor demands, industry standards and community needs and the state government is fully supporting a shift in attitude towards environmental issues. Ambode believes the ‘Cleaner Lagos’ initiative and recently passed environment laws are the first step to a change in mind set, collaboration and change. Rapid urbanisation has caused a widespread threat of extinction and the Governor, together with the NCF, is promoting ‘Green Recovery Nigeria,’ a re-greening programme to recover forest areas. He added that people need to start taking responsibility for their behaviour and how it impacts on the environment, instead of thinking it is only a problem for future generations to tackle. The Governor remarked that not only are fauna and flora dwindling, but that it is imperative to realise that diminishing resources will severely threaten human beings’ existence.

Ambode noted, “The rich ecosystems in Lagos State, which are home to a variety of aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals are under serious threat of extinction from a range of causes, chief of which is the rapid urbanisation that has occurred in the state over the past five decades. “Climatic events such as flooding, hurricanes and landslides have made us understand that any development that is not mindful of the environment and its natural heritage is definitely not sustainable,” Ambode concluded.

NCF President, Philip Asiodu added, “We cannot attract and sustain ecotourism to the metropolitan city of Lagos and its environs if we do not ensure that it has a clean and healthy environment. Walk for nature is an awareness campaign platform for environmental protection, nature conservation, biodiversity and sustainable development among the citizenry. Environmental education needs to be promoted at all levels, and even entrenched in the school curriculum to enable us to emphasise that in all areas of human life, life is nature and nature is life.”
Understandably, it is only beneficial to a country to develop the ecotourism sector to protect and enhance tourist offerings as a source of revenue. Home to the second-largest rainforest in the world, extending over 1.55 million km2, the Malebo site in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) gained international recognition, winning the 2017 top100 sustainable destination award in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and Congolese NGO MbouMonTour (MMT).

The competition was organised by Green Destinations, a global non-profit community focused on human rights and protecting nature in tourism. The project is led by the community to conserve the local wildlife in the Mai Ndombe region, whilst empowering locals. The WWF PICBOU project aims to conserve the bonobo primates, which can only be found in this particular location and are classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The DRC has the highest level of biodiversity in Africa, yet 190 species are classified as critically endangered, including elephants and gorillas.

Minister of Tourism and Recreation for the Republic of Congo, Arlette Soudan-Nonault believes the region could become the top ecotourism destination in Africa. “We are showing to the world and to the Congolese people that we have a strong touristic potential, but only if it’s regulated properly,” Soudan-Nonault said, when appealing to the Congolese public to develop their tourism businesses and work together with government on ecotourism initiatives. Traditionally an oil-dependent economy, tourism is being promoted as “the oil that never runs out,” suggested United Nations World Tourism Organisation Secretary-General Taleb Rifai to Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

South Africa has received numerous awards for sustainability and ecotourism destinations. The Tswalu Kalahari Reserve was regenerated from 38 overgrazed cattle farms, and is now the largest privately owned reserve in Southern Africa and home to many endangered species. Madikwe Game Reserve, previously a cattle farm and once a barren wasteland – now boasts wildlife numbers of over 10,000, and is the first entirely community-owned and operated lodge in South Africa. Wilderness Safaris CEO, Keith Vincent, believes that the company’s 30-year success can be attributed to their commitment to the environment and sustainable projects. The company founders, Colin Bell and Chris McIntyre, were seasoned travellers in Botswana in the early eighties, where they formed the notion of creating a company passionate about nature and one which also profited the local people and protected wildlife.

With community at the heart of the business, their Wilderness Wildlife Trust and Children in the Wilderness (CITW) non-profit programmes address wildlife issues and provide education and training to local communities, benefitting 19 rural communities and 25,000 to 30,000 community members directly and indirectly. A particular success story for Wilderness Safaris has been a project in Namibia. The company employed local community members to build eco-lodges using environmentally-friendly materials and have committed to transferring total ownership of the lodges and their operations to local communities within 20 years.

Heritage SA is a South African company with a footprint in eight African countries, and is a leading auditor in certification for accommodation, tradeshows, game lodges and the corporate sector in responsible best practice. Internationally recognised standards, including ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and ISO 20121 are a prerequisite for members’ annual reviews, resulting in being awarded one of three tiers of accreditation in a weighted evaluation system. When reflecting on the 2017 South African tourism increase of 12, 4% year-on-year from Statistics SA, Anton Roelofse, regional general manager at Business Partners Limited pointed out that ecotourism is a trend that is changing the industry.

“The recent drought ravaging the Western Cape has had a negative impact on all sectors. Local tourism operations have to think about how to handle the drought with their clients, especially those with adventure tourism operations that depend on water levels. “If businesses and countries alike are to continue benefitting from the rewards and profits offered by the tourism sector, we need to balance economic gains with sustainable environmental practices,” Roelofse added.

Roelofse believes that customers will start to select their destinations based on travel with a conscience, whilst tourism businesses will begin to compete in their offerings of community empowerment and environmental conservation. “Tourism businesses will need to tap into the trend of ethical or responsible tourism as the modern tourist is much more aware of the socio-economic and environmental impact of their travels.” The South African National Department of Tourism is implementing a variety of ecotourism initiatives including the ‘Green Coast Project’, where 100 underprivileged youths from local communities are being provided with work for tourism operators along the Wild Coast. In conjunction with the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA), the project is providing accredited skills training in tourism guiding and environmental practices to the young adults who are being hailed as ‘Green Coast Stewards’. Aside from community upliftment, the project aims to pilot a coastal awards programme, Green Coast, which will reward local municipalities and communities meeting specific conservation criteria. South Africa’s national parks regularly run a successful ‘SANParks week’, allocating a week day offering free entrance to the parks to South Africans. Its success has not only resulted in increased local tourism, but assists local conservation efforts.

“If businesses and countries alike are to continue benefitting from the rewards and profits offered by the tourism sector, we need to balance economic gains with sustainable environmental practices.”
– Anton Roelofse , Regional General Manager, Business Partners Limited

Many hotels are joining the trend to become eco-friendly and educate the public about energy efficient and environmentally-safe ways of running systems within their homes. The Indaba Hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa, hosts a ‘Going Green’ event aimed at providing green improvements for home-owners including grey water recycling, solar energy and using green building materials. Africa’s Travel INDABA – not to be confused with the hotel of the same name – is one of the largest annual gatherings of all tourism and travel-related companies. Hosted in KwaZulu-Natal, the INDABA is attended by delegates from all over Africa and international buyers. Operated by South African Tourism, the INDABA has made a concerted effort to utilise technology over printing paper in their ‘Go Green’ initiative, potentially saving over 374 trees in the process. The trade show now also features a Heritage and Culture Pavilion to the event, highlighting South Africa’s heritage sites and cultural attractions.

Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) is South Africa’s national greening campaign, developing natural resource management practices and securing food resources in communities via organic food gardens. The organisation provides education on environmental issues and has distributed over 4 million trees in the country. Pioneers of the first ‘carbon calculator’, FTFA is building a Carbon Protocol of South Africa and introduced the Climate Change Leadership Awards in an effort to create awareness of the benefits of environmental improvement in communities. By providing skills and programme training, the tools are provided to impoverished communities to sustain natural resources and live healthier lives.

Tourism, in general, is a double-edged sword. It is a vital lifeline to African countries, providing 6.7 million jobs in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, with a projected growth of 10.5% by 2025 and contributing R412.2bn (9.4% of GDP) to South Africa in 2017 (Source: Stats SA). Yet, the impact of tourists – left unmonitored – is diminishing resources, wildlife and cultural heritage. For ecotourism to work properly, it is evident that collaborative regulatory bodies will need to install accreditation for tourism operations to abide by. Eco-conscious travellers will begin to expect their destinations to provide proof of their sustainable efforts in conservation and community empowerment and it is vital that government and relevant stakeholders in the industry involve community decision-making in order to find a balance between nature and community well-being.

For now, many projects in Africa still rely heavily on international funding, and large amounts of revenue streams do not come back into contact with the communities, but fill the pockets of large corporations. Smaller ecotourism companies are leading the way locally, and will rely heavily on tourists making an effort to select destinations that are applying principles according to ecotourism accreditations. Profits need to be driven back into local communities and better infrastructure, education and skills development need to be a priority to employ locals. Unfortunately, conservation comes at a cost, and more often than not, opportunities for personal economic gain outweigh the concern for local communities and exploiting natural areas. Global warming, habitat destruction and limited resources are a reality for our generation and generations to come; and if we are to tread lightly on the Earth, we must take responsibility for our ecological footprint.

This article was written by NICOLE LESCHINSKY.

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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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