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SSustainability in tourism isn’t a grand gesture or some abstract concept, but rather about the people, their heritage and prosperity and the planet,” writes Bronwen Auret of South African Tourism.

Navigating the intricate landscape of modern tourism, especially post-COVID-19 pandemic, one fundamental question resonates deeply: How do we meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs? At its core, sustainability is about securing our continued survival on this planet. Nowhere is this more evident than in South Africa, where our rich and diverse cultural heritage intertwines with the imperative of preserving our natural environment.

From marine conservation to sustainable agriculture and farm stays, community-based ecotourism, and township tourism, South Africa offers a diverse array of sustainable tourism experiences.

In our pursuit of sustainability, we acknowledge that the heart of our tourism lies within our people. The true essence of South Africa is discovered within their stories, traditions, and communities. We are renowned not solely for our breathtaking landscapes and vibrant cultures but also for the warmth and friendliness of the people. According to the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, South Africa consistently ranks among the top countries in the world for tourism competitiveness, with factors such as the “attitude of the population towards foreign visitors” contributing to its allure.

Community-based ecotourism lies at the heart of our sustainability efforts, empowering local communities to benefit from tourism while preserving their cultural and natural heritage. We boast community-owned lodges such as Bulungula Lodge, nestled in the breathtaking landscapes of the Eastern Cape, which stands as a testament to the transformative power of tourism in uplifting and empowering marginalised communities. The lodge operates entirely off-grid, epitomising a commitment to carbon neutrality.

Moreover, cultural tourism and heritage sites provide a window into South Africa’s rich history and diverse cultural tapestry. From the ancient rock art of the Drakensberg Mountains to the vibrant streets of Soweto in Johannesburg, including the world-famous Vilakazi Street, these experiences preserve our heritage and provide economic opportunities for local communities. Among these treasures is the KwaZulu-Natal iSimangaliso Wetland Park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which boasts a variety of ecosystems such as coastal forests, wetlands, and estuaries. Similarly, the Cape Floral Region, renowned as a global biodiversity hotspot, stands out for its extraordinary plant diversity and endemism. It represents less than 0.38% of Africa’s landmass yet harbours nearly 20% of its flora, including five of its twelve endemic families. Despite covering only 90,000 km², this area supports 8,996 plant species and 988 genera, with 32% being unique to the region.

Marine conservation efforts showcase South Africa’s commitment to preserving its coastal ecosystems while promoting responsible tourism. The Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Western Cape is a shining example of marine conservation. Established in 2004, this MPA encompasses various coastal and aquatic habitats, including kelp forests, rocky shores, and sandy beaches. It serves as a sanctuary for many marine species, including endangered African penguins and Cape fur seals.

Similarly, sustainable agriculture and farm stays allow us to celebrate the bounty of our land while promoting regenerative farming practices and rural development. In Gauteng, one similar example is the African Pride Irene Country Lodge, situated in Centurion. This lodge is set within a working farm environment, offering guests a unique opportunity to experience sustainable farming practices first-hand. The lodge’s organic farm produces fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs used in on-site restaurants to create delicious farm-to-table dishes. Visitors can explore the farm through guided tours, learning about eco-friendly farming techniques and the importance of biodiversity conservation.

Waste management and recycling initiatives are essential for keeping our landscapes pristine and our communities healthy. From beach clean-ups along the Wild Coast to recycling programmes in urban centres, these efforts demonstrate our commitment to responsible tourism and environmental sustainability. One example is the “Clean C” project implemented by the City of Cape Town. The project focuses on coastal clean-up efforts along the beaches of the Wild Coast, aiming to remove litter and debris from these pristine areas and promote environmental conservation.

Wildlife conservation and responsible safaris are synonymous with South Africa’s tourism industry, allowing visitors to witness iconic species in their natural habitats. From the majestic elephants of Kruger National Park to the endangered rhinos of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, these experiences support conservation efforts while providing unforgettable memories for visitors.

Environmental education and conservation programmes that promote sustainability among tourists and locals. The Environmental Education and Training Programme (EETP), led by the Department of Environment, Forestry, and Fisheries, boosts environmental awareness and skills in local communities via educational initiatives. These cover biodiversity conservation, climate change, waste management, and sustainable resource use.

We excel in sustainability stakes, receiving external validation for our efforts. The 2023 WTM Africa Responsible Tourism Awards recognised excellence in sustainability across the sector, presenting various establishments with awards ranging from silver to Gold. BirdLife South Africa took Gold for best diversity and inclusion. Lemala Camps & Lodges also took Gold for efforts in tackling plastic waste. At the 2022 WTM Responsible Tourism Awards, Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge secured the Gold in “Local Economic Benefit” category. While, the Tzaneen Country Lodge owner received the “Celebrate Her Award” from the International Institute of Peace for Sustainable Tourism at ITB 2024, showcasing our commitment to a sustainable and responsible tourism industry.

In conclusion, as we chart the course for sustainable tourism in South Africa, remember that our greatest asset is our people. By prioritising their well-being, preserving their heritage, and protecting our natural environment, we can ensure that tourism continues to be a force for good in our country for generations to come.

Bronwen is the Chief Quality Assurance Officer at The Tourism Grading Council of South Africa, a South African Tourism business unit.


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