Africa Geographic Travel

Can responsible tourism solve social problems?

At the recent Responsible Tourism Conference held in Cape Town a high-powered panel of speakers made the case that tourism, if well managed, can change the shape of society and the environment on which it depends.

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Simon Gear, renowned environmentalist and public speaker, provided insight and humour as MC for the conference titled “Mainstreaming Responsible Tourism”. Opening the discussion Jonathon Hanks, Founder and Director of Incite, a think tank specialising in assisting businesses to adapt to megatrends, outlined some of the major shifts we’re beginning to see.

They include a global tilt towards emerging economies, a demographic shift towards the youth, growing pressure on natural resources and consequently their prices, new nationalism, disruptive digitalisation and mass communication. As a result of these changes businesses that will thrive in the future will be those that rethink their understanding of the value of human, social and natural capital. They will be the businesses that assign value to resources and relationships, addressing inequalities and adopting integrated reporting of these issues into their practices.

Nombulelo Mfeka, Tourism Director for the City of Cape Town, outlined the journey that this destination has taken emphasising several times how Cape Town punches above its weight in the international responsible tourism arena. The message: we may be small by international standards but that doesn’t mean we can’t be as good as the best, and better.

While Cape Town has made inroads into pushing its responsible tourism agenda, Bekithemba Langalibalele from the National Department of Tourism highlighted how important such initiatives are on a national level, providing some excellent examples of success elsewhere in the world.

Coming from a background of rural development Wilna Botha of Africa Ignite provided examples of how tourism is also being used as a tool in Kwa Zulu Natal to improve lives.

Samantha Annandale of the award-winning Hotel Verde in Cape Town described some of the steps that they have taken to embrace the future. Notable innovations include a gym that feeds human generated energy into the hotel’s electricity system and rewarding guests who use resources scarcely (e.g. no air conditioner, no towel laundry) via in-house currency called Verdinos. In true innovative fashion they’ve even coined a new word for the much-bandied ‘sustainability’ – thrivability – because they believe that being smart and forward thinking will ensure their business flourishes.

Detailing market trends and pitfalls for the tourism industry, Jan Hutton of Deloitte S.A. described how businesses can take these one board. Despite tourism representing ‘carbon guilt’ in the minds of many travellers it is, importantly, a launch pad for spreading responsible living (as Hotel Verde illustrated). Mindless travel is rapidly being replaced with mindful travel. Some of the trends to look out for: geo-local travel (travelling closer to home), the rise of urban tourism for emerging markets such as China and India, hyper-local sourcing of products, authenticity and ‘deep’ travel (‘getting under the skin’ of a destination). There will also be a rise in slow travel e.g. trains, boats and bikes, while at the same time carbon caps for airlines are a real possibility.

Fiona Buchner of Sustainable Advantage informed the gathering that while it was important for tourism companies to take sustainable principles on board it was equally important to communicate those principles to the market for several reasons. Legislation governing sustainable tourism is inevitable so businesses that are communicating this now have a head start over others. Assuaging the ‘guilt’ of travel is an important part of attracting tourists to your product. Furthermore many travellers from the developed world are actively seeking responsible holidays.

Closing the event with an interview with the South African Minister of Tourism, Derek Hanekom, describing how important responsible tourism is to the country was an indication that national government is taking the subject seriously. So look for roll-out of national plans in this regard. It also reminded me of the recent debate in parliament around the rhino poaching problem where one MP said that government would do everything in its power to make protection of this species societal.

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While many in the travel industry are already aware of the advancing changes and will position their businesses to take advantage of them, what is important to remember is that responsible tourism is about creating better places for people to live in first, thereby making them better places for people to visit. It’s understanding this distinction that will empower Africa, her people and her wildlife to thrive.



Clarissa Hughes

Clarissa Hughes has worked and travelled widely in Africa. With 30 years experience in the tourism industry her knowledge is varied and wide. Her interest lies at the nexus of human development and environmental conservation. Clarissa also has an interest in African culture. She is a co-founder of the Nhabe Museum in Maun, Botswana as well as the author of a book on the indigenous beliefs around the night sky titled ‘Flowers in the Sky – a celebration of southern African starlore‘. She is the author of a number of tourism and African culture related articles and is a member of the International League of Conservation Writers.

Africa Geographic