Tourism has taken a turn toward the responsible – and the little coastal town of Gansbaai offers the ideal model for profit-making sustainability

South Africa’s tourism industry offers a lifeline in a sea of economic turmoil. In 2017, travel and tourism contributed 2.9% of South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP), amounting to R136.1 billion and creating 1.5 million jobs. However, merely turning a profit is not enough. Taking responsibility for making tourism sustainable is crucial, with key priorities being education, conservation, social upliftment and job creation.

Recognising that good places to live are good places to visit, the small coastal town of Gansbaai is putting the principles of responsible tourism into action. Situated about 50 kilometres east of Hermanus, Gansbaai is Africa’s mecca for the marine Big Five: Whale, shark, dolphin, seal and penguin.Accommodation providers, tour operators and private landowners are all involved in conserving the breeding grounds of the endangered African penguin, the Cape fur seal, the southern right whale and the great white shark. And, in recognition of these endeavours, Gansbaai won the World Travel Market’s Africa (WTMA) Responsible Tourism Awards in 2015.

Within Gansbaai lies the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, one of 26 members of the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy. Landowners have pooled their resources to conserve 16 000 hectares of lowland fynbos and forest as well as promote education, job creation and empowerment in the local community. 

Upon arrival, frogs croak a throaty welcome from the ponds and pools that adorn the landscaped indigenous gardens around the aptly named Garden Lodge, which, like the Forest Lodge and the two private villas that can also be found in the reserve, are set amongst 2 500 hectares of pristine fynbos, studded in 1 000-year-old milkwood forests. Of the Cape Floral Kingdom’s 9 000 fynbos plants, Grootbos conserves 800 species. Named as one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World, Grootbos Private Nature Reserve won the World Tourism Market Award for Poverty Reduction in 2015 and was voted the Best for Accommodation in 2017. 

Aptly, a bouquet of proteas awaits visitors in their suites and the walls are bedecked in botanical photographs taken by the owner’s father, Heiner Lutzeyer. The leather couch, russet armchairs and stripy cushions add earthy shades of brown, beige and strawberry while a mosquito net drapes the crisp white linen of the bed and the glowing embers in the cast-iron fireplace takes in the chill from outside.

Established in 2004, the Grootbos Foundation runs the reserve’s non-profit activities, which include conservation, entrepreneurship, sustainable agriculture, tourism and sport. Every week, the Football Foundation coaches 2 000 young people in the surrounding areas in soccer, netball, hockey and athletics. Siyakhula Organic Farm, situated on the property, employs a full-time staff of eight, who sell their produce to the Grootbos lodges. Guests enjoy the farm’s honey, eggs and fresh produce as well as spring water bottled on the property to minimise single-use plastic bottles. The Green Futures programme
provides adult education in guiding, hospitality and indigenous gardening. Selected students learn how to grow vegetables and propagate plants, and the proceeds from the indigenous plant nursery fund their studies. 

One of the many tours offered by Grootbos is Living the Future, a tour that introduces guests to the work of the foundation. Guide Ally Nkosinathi Msweli is originally from Umtata in the Eastern Cape but has lived in Gansbaai since 2004. He was one of Green Future’s third batch of graduates and describes how, in just one year, he improved his English, memorised the Latin botanical names, acquired his driver’s licence, learnt to use a computer and grasped the fundamentals of tour guiding before going on to work as a guide for Grootbos. Now, he runs his own business offering township tours to Masakhane. ‘Things that are impossible are possible here at Grootbos,’ Ally observes.

Stretching from De Kelders at Gansbaai and along the coast to the Klein River estuary, Walker Bay is one of the world’s most famous whale-watching destinations. Humpback and Bryde’s whales can be seen year round while southern right whales arrive from the Antarctic in July to calve in the quiet, warm waters of SA’s east coast before returning to their feeding grounds in November. There is no better way to see these gentle giants than in a custom-built whale-watching boat with award-winning Dyer Island Cruises, accompanied by a marine biologist. 

Dyer Island Cruises is involved in marine conservation, seabird rescue and educational school tours, and also provides training and job opportunities in tourism for members of the local community. Its sister company, Marine Dynamics, itself a winner of the African Responsible Tourism Awards in 2016, offers shark-cage diving experiences.

Some eight kilometres offshore, Dyer Island supports the world’s sixth largest colony of endangered African penguins while Geyser Rock is home to some 60 000 seals, one of the largest colonies of Cape fur seals in the country. On the way there, at Shark Alley, a channel between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, great white sharks are aplenty because of the abundance of food, and a scattering of shark cage-diving boats is not an uncommon sight. Great whites can grow up to 11 metres in length and it is estimated that there are only 5 000 great white sharks in the world, with some 2 000 of the population to be found in South African waters – another reason why Gansbaai is a bucket-list destination. 

Gansbaai and its responsible tourism initiatives prove that profit and principle can co-exist, delivering a winning formula for tourists, operators, the community and the environment, and providing a template for the future of tourism in Africa. 

Pit stops

1 Book your stay at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve,

2 Head for the waters – and whales and penguins and sharks with Dyer Island Cruises,

3 Take the deep-sea plunge with Marine Dynamics,

4 Give back to the community with Masakhane’s Township Tours, +27 78 717 6224

A version of this article first appeared in Edition 4-2018 of Intrepid Explorer.