The rise of responsible tourism in SA

It was recently announced that the earth’s population will reach 7 billion by 2012. That adds up to a lot of people, each needing to survive and function in their community, each consuming and leaving behind harmful footsteps on a planet that needs, increasingly, to be tread on lightly and with reverence.

As this article is being written, debates on global warming are raging at the COP17 conference in Durban. The future of a climate change agreement hangs in the balance as the world economy tries to find ways to recover from its recent disastrous recession. Floods, droughts and rising sea levels are causing enormous concern.

At the same time, South Africa remains one of the relatively new darlings in world tourism. Set against the background of a tempestuous history, South Africa is beautiful, it’s affordable, its wildlife is without compare and its people are friendly and vibrant and represent a plethora of interesting cultures. Hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup also did much to improve SA’s image as a desirable tourist destination.

So how can all of the above add up to a relatively new concept known as “responsible tourism”? “Responsible tourism” seems to be an oxymoron – the mere act of setting foot on a plane to get to your destination involves that ultimate bogeyman threatening the environment: substantially enlarging your carbon footprint. And with South Africa being a long-haul destination, it makes the situation even more worrying. But responsible tourism is not a politically correct pipe dream – it can actually make a difference. And a lot is already being done.

What is responsible tourism?

Responsible tourism involves a new and different way of managing tourism which aims to increase and maximise the benefits – economic, social and environmental – and minimising costs for both visitor and host/destination. It is a form of tourism that “creates better places for people to live in, and better places to visit” – a phrase coined in South Africa’s tourism capital, Cape Town, in 2002.

What are the benefits? In many tourist destinations worlwide, one often finds a luxurious tourist resort, surrounded by desperate and impoverished communities and much environmental damage and wastage. Responsible tourism aims to change this – it generates economic benefits for the local people, enhancing the wellbeing of host communities. It improves working conditions and access to industry, and involves local people in decision making.

It also makes a positive contribution to the conservation of a country’s natural and cultural heritage, and to the maintenance of the world’s diversity. In the process, it provides more enjoyable experiences for visitors through connecting with local people and their cultures, and a greater understanding of and respect for a country’s cultural, social and environmental issues. Responsible tourism also focuses on minimising negative economic, environmental and social impacts.

Government – leading from the front

Responsible tourism is recognised by key roleplayers in the tourism sector as an important pillar for tourism development and promotion in South Africa, says Bekithemba Langalibalele, Director: Responsible Tourism at the National Department of Tourism.

South Africa is the first country in the world  to include responsible tourism in its National Tourism Policy, which is the 1996 White Paper on the Development and Promotion of Tourism in South Africa.

Following this policy, a number of initiatives have been undertaken to develop, support and promote responsible tourism.

National Responsible Tourism Guidelines were developed in 2002 – these emphasised the need to address the triple bottom line of sustainable development (economic, environmental, and social).

The Responsible Tourism Manual and Handbook was developed in 2003 with the objective of empowering tourism businesses with sufficient information about responsible tourism.  The manual assists the tourism sector in the identification of tourism opportunities availed through the implementation of responsible tourism practices that also could benefit their businesses.

The National Department of Tourism (NDT) runs annual workshops with tourism sector stakeholders to raise awareness about Energy Efficiency, water conservation, waste management and promotion of universal accessibility in tourism.

It is also NDT’s responsibility to produce a National Climate Change Response Plan which would provide guidance to the tourism sector.

In line with the Responsible Tourism Guidelines, NDT has developed the National Minimum Standard for Responsible Tourism (SANMSRT) – after extensive consultation and rigorous testing it was published in March 2011 and launched in September 2011. The SANMSRT consists of 41 criteria, covering the core aspects of sustainability and is divided into four categories: sustainable operations and management; economic; environmental; and social and cultural.  The standard serves three purposes – to establish a common understanding for responsible tourism, to promote responsible tourism in the tourism sector and to establish the minimum criteria for certification for sustainability in the SA tourism sector.

The department has also developed the National Tourism Sector Strategy (NTSS) – among its key priorities are the creation of a conducive environment for sustainable growth. In this document, Responsible Tourism development and benefits for the community have been identified as the main focus points.

The department is currently drafting a national strategy which would guide the implementation of responsible tourism in South Africa.

South African Provincial Tourism Authorities have also followed guidelines provided by government and have incorporated Responsible Tourism into their policies and plans, and launched several initiaties.

The private sector has also undertaken bold initiatives in the field of responsible tourism. The hospitality industry, which includes the major hotel groups like Southern Sun, Sun International, Peermont Global, Protea Hotels, City Lodge and including small and medium enterprises, have completed water, energy and waste management audits and put together improvement plans.

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