The growing niche of Ecotourism: What is it and how does it work?

Ujuh Reporter

Ecotourism is a growing niche in South Africa, in line with global trends, with great value adding opportunities for all concerned; the entrepreneurs, the tourists, local communities and the environment.

By its very nature, ecotourism is underpinned by travel that places a great deal of importance on conserving the environment and the welfare of the people who live in those destinations. In this vain, the growth in ecotourism has the potential to alleviate poverty through its economy upliftment potential and creat­ing jobs in parts of the country that require it most.

The TIES Definition

A definition of Ecotourism from The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines it as:

Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.

And TIES lays down the principles of Ecotourism as follows:

Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel. This means that those who implement and participate in ecotourism activities should follow the following ecotourism principles:

  • Minimize impact.
  • Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
  • Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
  • Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
  • Provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people.
  • Raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climate.

In South Africa

“The greatest opportunity for South Africa is capitalising on ecotourism to ensure that the people living in the areas being visited, are benefiting from the economic growth,” says Charnel Kara, tourism expert at FNB Business.

While there is no formal data to substantiate exactly how many people are employed within the sub sector, it is generally known that for every 8 to 10 tourists in South Africa one job is created. As a sub sector, ecotourism is one of the fastest growing sub sectors worldwide, reporting growth of between 10 – 15% annually. South Africa generates over R100 billion a year in total tourism revenue, with ecotourism contributing a notable portion to this revenue, and making it an important sub sector.

“A portion of the total income from ecotourism goes directly into the communities where the hotel and lodges are located, which helps reduce poverty and brings about higher paying jobs to the locals, spurring economic activity,” explains Kara.

How to engage?

Kara says that businesses in the tourism sector can engage this growing niche by ensuring three main things:

The wellbeing of the local environment – The central tenant that drives ecotourism is the travellers’ search for pristine environments around the world. South Africa already stands head and shoulders above many as we have some of the best coastal lines around the world. We have natural forests and wildlife, which make us competitive, the focus for businesses should be on creating systems that ensure sustainability.

The wellbeing of the locals – The beauty with ecotourism is that it encourages local communities to take part in the running and continuity of the various businesses that bring in tourists. Businesses should be developing supply chains and human resources to ensure that income from tourism is spent and shared among the community.

The high-quality experience of the tourist – The single biggest differentiating factor is customer service. When one travels, they are searching for an experience, often customer service makes the real difference for tourists, people are more likely to recommend you or return if they feel their experience was memorable and had a meaningful impact.

“Ecotourism awakens a certain awareness in a tourists, which in turn significantly increases the quality of his/her travels whilst impacting on businesses and economies. It teaches travellers to be more responsible to the protected areas of the world, it helps educate people, it provides funds for conservation as well as for local communities, if done right, it is a win for everyone,” concludes Kara.

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