Eco-Tourism in Africa
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?
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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.