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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Sustainability of Tourism in Africa

The sustainability of Tourism in Africa

by David Ryan, Rhino Africa Safaris - IGLTA Member

As a visitor to Africa or even as a tour operator, one could be excused for thinking that all is well with tourism and conservation on the continent. After all, guests can jet in and within hours we can have them tucked up in a luxury lodge, viewing Africa’s famous Big Five with almost guaranteed certainty.

However, when one takes a step back and looks at the raw facts, the picture isn’t so pretty. In the last 50 years Africa’s lion population has decreased from 750,000 to less than 20,000. Leopards have not fared much better, dropping to 50,000 from around 700,000. This affliction affects all species, evidenced by the fact that the overall population of wildlife in Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve has plummeted by over 80% in the same time period.

As Colin Bell so aptly put it, “to think we have allowed this degradation of our greatest asset to happen in our generation”.

For an industry that is destined to be Africa’s economic savour, the question begs: how sustainable is this industry really – or are we setting ourselves up for catastrophic failure, beyond the realms of any economic recession?

If this environmental degradation continues, or the winds of change don’t sweep across our continent, the collapse of our eco-systems and our industry is imminent. Sadly we don’t have another 50 years to play with - the time is now!

I believe that this change begins with agents and tour operators across the globe that market Africa. Collectively we control the spending power of tourists (not the individual lodge and hotel owners) and without owning a bed, our industry can become Africa’s saving grace. But for this to happen, tour operators and agents need to act on their social conscience and put something back into Africa.

By helping our clients to reduce their carbon footprint and by consciously supporting suppliers and products that adopt eco-friendly strategies, facilitate transformation and employ social responsibility programs, we can increase the amount of land under wildlife, thus reversing the current trend. In addition, we can actively force suppliers and product owners that are simply chasing profit without regard for the environment, to review their practices and adopt green policies - or face being cut out of the market.

This is naturally easier said than done. Tour operators and agents must adopt a social conscience and herein lies an important lesson, learnt though our inception ofChallenge4aCause, our in house social responsibility programme.

Having a positive Balance Sheet is no longer the sole means of measuring a company’s success. Tourism companies can actively increase their clout in terms of brand positioning by adopting a strategic approach that gives back to the community by supporting sociological, cultural or ecological causes through volunteer initiatives.

Challenge4aCause is a case in point. By creating a dynamic platform to generate vital funds and awareness in support of non-profit organisations (in our case Save the Rhino Trust) we have been able to improve both the public image and revenue of our business. I have always viewed Rhino Africa as a Tourism company with a passion for conservation, but we are just an island in a huge ocean. Tourism and conservation are not mutually exclusive, and for the sustainability of our industry, conservation now has to be our collective legacy.

Less than 50 years ago there were over 4,000 Rhino here. Now there are under 200!

Building business value with charitable activities is a win-win strategy for both the business and the cause. But one can never ‘do’ social responsibility as a means of marketing...your core strengths are still key to business success.

So I ask all potential visitors to this beautiful continent to actively examine the impact they will have when travelling. And when choosing your preferred operator, please make sure that your operator does not only provide a professional service at an excellent rate, but embodies a vision and passion to actively conserve and expand the last remaining natural heritage of Africa.

Ask your operator what they are doing to actively conserve Africa and the criteria they use when selecting and partnering with hotels and lodges, as you will ultimately be supporting these. While price is naturally an important consideration in any African itinerary, and companies employing “green” strategies have an obligation not to overcapitalise on the “goodwill” bestowed by operators, global consciousness is the only means we have of saving Africa and ensuring the sustainability of our industry.

As we turn 5 years old today, my commitment to you as a visitor to this magical continent is that Rhino Africa will continue to innovate, conserve and transform Africa. We will continue to do our bit to facilitate the change needed and hopefully our friends in the industry will start developing their own Challenges and Causes, in order that the legacy we leave behind will, in some small way, start paying back for the sins of our forefathers.

We look forward to you joining us on this journey...

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