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Eco-Tourism in Africa

by Stephanie Debere
Travel Africa magazine, Summer 2002

When international delegates met in Quebec in may for the largest-ever gathering of players in the eco-tourism industry, Africa’s representatives could hold their heads high. Although often criticized for its slow development, the continent leads the way in eco-tourism, through pioneering ventures combining conservation and communities—to the benefit of both.

The Quebec conference is the highlight of the UN’s International Year of Eco-tourism (IYE), which aims to aims awareness of eco-tourism among the public and to promote best practice in planning, regulating, developing and monitoring eco-tourism, by drawing on experience worldwide.

Delegates presented findings from regional conferences held around the world earlier this year. In March, Africa’s eco-tourism industry, from ministers to tribesmen, met in Nairobi to decide the future strategy for the region. Their findings were crucial, not least because over 100 villages attended—more community member than at any other IYE regional conference.

As trailblazer, Africa has had to learn from its mistakes, but the innovative eco-ventures that now span the continent demonstrate that enduring progress has been made. Africa has moved well beyond biodegradable soap and signs urging guests to re-use towels, and local people are the key. The quality and variety of eco-trips on offer is impressive and most make excellent holidays, even if you’re concerned about eco-issues.

Although part of an industry that can trample sensitive cultures and environments, eco-tourism is seen by many as offering hope for Africa. This may sound rosy, but controversy is inevitable when fragile environments and sensitive cultures are involved. So what’s being done in Africa, and is eco-tourism really the way forward for the continent?

The Semantics: What is Eco-tourism?

What is Ecotourism?The fact that 2002 is the IYE confirms that much of the suspicion that once surrounded eco-anything is melting away. Although a niche market, eco-tourism is emerging from the fringes, no longer the preserve of lentil-lovers and eco-warriors. And its meaning has evolved. Many people think eco-tourism is nature tourism—that the “eco” comes from eco-system or ecology. While eco-tourism’s roots do lie in nature tourism, it has grown to mean more.

There are numerous formal definitions. In 1991 The International Eco-tourism Society (TIES) defined eco-tourism as “responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people.” This nearly encapsulates the difference between nature tourism and eco-tourism, namely the involvement of local people, enabling them to benefit from the proceeds. The UN recognizes eco-tourism as both a market segment and a set of principles. But one of the clearest definitions is a neat acronym from the East African tour operator Eco-resorts. Eco, it says, stands for “Environment and Community-Oriented”.

Perhaps in order to prevent confusion with nature tourism, some people have begun to define eco-tourism as “responsible tourism”. But the two are not synonymous. Responsible tourism practices (such as respect for local cultures and environmentally-friendly energy use) can be applied to any segment of the tourism industry, including mass-market hotels and package tours. While they also apply to eco=tourism, eco-tourism is more specific, delivered primarily (though not necessarily) to small groups by small-scale companies, and involving responsible behaviour by both. It contributes to the conservation of biodiversity and sustains the well-being of local people, while providing guests with a learning experience and requiring the lowest possible consumption of non-renewable resources. The message is proactive, going beyond simple minimizing the negative impact of tourist activities but recognizing that tourism can be a powerful force for good. The emphasis is on community participation, both as agents of conservation and so that people can enjoy improved living standards.

Africa’s Story

Africa's ecotourism storyAfrica has been at the forefront of this evolution from nature- to eco-tourism. In the 1980’s, authorities facing dire prospects such as rhino extinction recognized the fragility of the continent’s wildernesses and moved people like Kenya’s Maasai off their lands to create national parks. This heightened the conflict over land between people and wildlife. The new NPs were ringed by resentful communities. Unable to graze their herds alongside the wildlife, as they had done for centuries, they turned to poaching and illicit hunting for the pot. Conservation didn’t stand a chance, until far-sighted individuals realized that is African people were given a stake in the safari industry and allowed to benefit from the income wildlife generated, game would have a higher value to them alive than dead.

So, primarily to help conservation, Africans were brought the tourist industry. It’s only in recent years that tourists and operators have ascribed a different role to local communities in tourism, one based on both their right to benefit from tourism and the priceless value for travelers of interactions with people and cultures. This has been key in enabling eco-tourism to help reconcile people and wildlife in their competing claims for land.

“People often come to Africa very goal-oriented,” says Gavin Bate, director of Adventure Alternative, who leads small groups up Kilimanjaro. “They arrive wanting only to make the summit, but when they leave, the strongest impression they take with them is invariably of Africa’s people.” One client wrote to Gavin saying “The memories the group will take away from our trip are not the challenge of Kilimanjaro, nor the excitement of safari, but meeting the people and culture of Africa, which has been one of the most moving and profound experiences of my life.”

Amanda Marks, director of the fair trade tour operator Tribes, charts the growing importance of people in eco-tourism. “When Tribes started four eyars ago our customers thought mainly of wildlife and habitat. Now they’re asking just as much about communities. Everyone’s realizing that people have a right to benefit from tourism activities on their lands, and that they have customs and traditions as interesting and worthy of protection as the natural world.”

A glance at the global context emphasizes the importance of this development. 30% of international tourists visit developing countries, and long-haul travel is growing faster than any other sector in the industry. Africa is in the front line: between 1995 and 2000, annual arrivals in Egypt increased from 2.9 million to 5.1 million; in South Africa, they rose from 4.7 to 6 million. British tourist alone spent 3 billion pounds holidaying in developing countries in 2000—about the same as their government gave in aid that year. So the potential for ethical travel to achieve good has never been greater.

Although it’s a niche market, the eco-tourism sector operates very much within this wider context and its members compete directly with companies in other sectors.

Eco-holidays: What’s an Offer?

“Even responsible consumers still choose their holidays through a mixture of motivations. Destination, activity and price remain key, so however green eco-operators are, if you don’t have good enough products, you won’t get people’s custom,” says Marks. “Our competitors aren’t just other eco-operators, they’re all operators. So we must have what customers want and be as good as anyone in the whole market. The eco-factor is the icing on the cake.”

This is good news for consumers: it means that there’s no need to compromise when choosing an eco-friendly holiday. On the contrary, eco-tourism can offer a richer product, believes Justin Francis, co-founder of Responsibletravel.com, an on-line venture offering the world’s largest selection of eco-friendly holidays. “Eco-tourism isn’t like going on a diet, where you deprive yourself of pleasure for a higher goal,” he says. “It’s more like eating organic food: better for you, and you put something back.”

Eco-holidays: What is on offer?Francis believes that the industry initially offered eco and responsible products because it felt duty-bound. “Now, operators are realizing that they actually have better products on their hands because of eco-tourism’s ability to enrich the traveler and offer entirely new experiences,” he says. Safaris, for example, hadn’t changed significantly in 100 years. Now community enterprises such as Kenya’s Maasai-run Il N’gwesi lodge offer exciting new variations.

He also argues that responsible travel is “real” travel: “in the modern era, we often lost sight of tourism as a voyage of discovery; Westerners live in a time famine, so we have to synthesize the real travel experience, fit it into two weeks. Eco-tourism is more authentic. It challenges existing perceptions and draw people away from pressurized ‘honey-pot’ sites like the Masai Mara to new areas, new experiences.”

But unlike organic food, eco-travel needn’t be more expensive. It can mean simple village stays, like those offered by Tumani Tenda in Gambia, although it also embraces unashamed luxury. CC Africa, for example, runs lavish safaris from model eco-lodges such as Phinda in South Africa.

What the new-generation eco-ventures have in common is a lack of the dreaded worthiness traditional associated with the genre. Operators realize that even people with conscience don’t necessarily want to fell they’re on a ideological crusade while on holiday. Eco-issues, aside, the emphasis is on having a good time.

The Obvious Way Forward?

Looking at Africa’s best eco-ventures, the answer would seem yes, but the overall picture is less simple. Questions arise over local versus Western involvement in eco-tourism projects. By definition, local people must have a say in the decision-making process and benefit financial from eco-tourism. Ideally, the more responsibility they have and the more profit they see, the better. But Western partners are often needed, for investment and to bridge the gap between an African community and its First World market. Inevitably there will be cultural difficulties to surmount in any partnership between a Western company and an African village. Inexhaustible supplies of patience and determination are often needed on both sides to make eco-tourism work. Michael Dyer, a director of Il N’gwesi, describes the lengthy process of research and endless meetings (beneath trees of in a run-down school) required to bring about the now hugely successful project.

And which aspects of culture should be open to tourism? Travelers reject ersatz cultural presentations in favour of authenticity, but communities can end up exposing core beliefs that are vulnerable to outside influence. They may therefore need to withhold some aspects of their culture from tourists or expose them in a limited way. The Zulu Reed Dance, for example is an annual tradition involving 10,000 virgins dancing for the Zulu king. Events of this magnitude can easily attract enough visitors to become a tourist spectacle, so very few outsides are permitted to attend, leaving the event uncompromised.

Another danger is that eco-tourism will become a victim of its own success. By definition, its scale must remain limited. If not carefully monitored, successful ventures could become too big, damaging sensitive environments and cultures as a result. Likewise, if not properly carried out in the first place, eco-tourism could have negative consequences.

Tourism Concern warns against the harm eco-tourism could cause by attracting people to sensitive areas. Already examples of damage are beginning to emerge. In the Lake Eyasi area of Tanzania, for example, Hoopoe Safaris has recently stopped visiting the Hadzabe people because it feels tourism is harming them.

Tourists shopping for souvenirs.“Exposure to tourists, while generating revenue for the Hadzabe, has accelerated a breakdown of their culture,” says Hoopoe’s Peter Lindstrom. “Often money doesn’t reach the right hands. Alcoholism and begging are among the problems. The Hadzabe lack the resilience of the Maasai, who are better able to adjust to entering mainstream Tanzanian society. Responsible tour operators like Hoopoe are not visiting the Hadzabe.”

UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette acknowledges that eco-tourism might have “devastating consequences: if not well managed. But she adds that if properly planned, developed and executed, “eco-tourism can help improve the living standards of local populations, while supporting conservation of the natural ecosystems that are so necessary to sustain life on our planet.”

Because it’s small-scale, eco-tourism can’t eliminate poverty, but it can drastically improve lives if money reaches the right people. Only time can tell whether the correct response when things go wrong is for operators to pull out. Perhaps it’s better to stay and help change things, and to make the harder choice to withdraw when things are going well—when local communities have learnt the skills needed to run a venture alone and links with western markets are established.

But, however ideal locally-run tourism ventures may be, Western involvement is clearly vital in getting them established, and sometimes in keeping them going. Namibia’s Damara people needed help from Wilderness Safaris to build on the success of the conservancy they had established to protect their game. Tribes is currently working with DFID and Café Direct to establish a programme enabling Kilimanjaro’s coffee growers to supplement their meager incomes by offering village stays in traditional huts to some of the 20,000 trekkers a year who climb the mountain.

Amanda Marks talks of a balance sheet on which to assess whether a tourism project that is flawed under the strictest definitions of eco-tourism is better than having no tourism project at all: “Sometimes you have to be pragmatic and hope that eco-tourism values with gradually prevail.”

There’s no reason why, given time, they won’t. A British MORI poll showed that 85% of tourists believe it’s important not to damage the environment, 77% think visits should include cultural experiences and 71 % feel that tourism should benefit local people. Fortunately, there’s nothing like consumer pressure to make operators change their ways.

Eco-tourism principles are also penetrating other tourism sectors in Africa. In Kenya, Serena Hotels’ properties are too large to fall within the eco-tourism sector, but the company has an impressive written policy committing it to environmental and community responsibilities, from energy efficiency and reforestation schemes to souring produce locally and training young villagers.

Western influence in Developing World tourism is not necessarily negative. The question is, who gains from tourist activity? “Tourism can bring huge benefits to poor countries,” says Graham Gordon, Policy Officer for the charity Tearfund. “But often those benefits simply bypass local poor people.” The growth of eco-tourism can help redress this imbalance.

“Greenwashing”: How Can You Tell?

It always sounds promising, but “eco” is a much-abused term, a prefix favoured in marketing departments, often of companies that care little for Africa’s environment and poorest people. Some operators have got away with “greenwashing” their image in recent years in the absence of any official ratings system. However, moves are now being made towards classifying the sector in Africa. Eco-resorts’ Anne Loehr is currently working for the Eco-tourism Society of Kenya (ESOK) to develop criteria for ranking local eco-tourism facilities and operators. South Africa’s government has just become the first to launch responsible tourism guidelines. IYE events are also addressing international accreditation systems.

Official ratings will help maintain the momentum of Africa’s success. But until a meaningful system is in place (such as the star ratings allocated to hotels), how can you tell who’s green to the core and whose dye will come off in the wash? Starting your search in the right place helps. Greenstop.net has awarded all the tours and accommodation offered on its website one to three green dots according to eco-worthiness. The operators featured on Responsibletravel.com have all met the company’s strict membership criteria, and TIES’ website also endorses trips and operators in Africa.

But ultimately the choice is yours and is best based on thorough questioning of a potential eco-supplier, and a healthy does of instinct. Without doubt this can uncover some of Africa’s best travel experiences.

“It’s like Fair Trade coffee,” says Justin Francis, continuing his epicurean theme. “It tastes the same as ordinary coffee, but there’s the feel-good factor too. Eco-tourism is every bit as good as ordinary travel, and it makes you feel even better.”

Eco-Footnotes Page 69
Travel Africa would like to thank all those people who gave of their time and expertise to facilitate the compilation of this feature, especially Anne Loehr, Amanda Marks and Justin Francis.

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