‘Eco’. That’s all it takes to assuage consciences and persuade people to part with their hard-earned cash. But how to tell whether or not a tourism destination is truly eco-friendly?

Ecotourism is the new travel buzzword as a growing number of people are becoming more conscious of their carbon footprint. But according to the director of Ecosafaris Namibia, Felix Vallat, travellers can be lied to. They are not from the area, they do not necessarily have the skills to judge – and they’re on holiday, which means heavy research is probably the last thing on their minds.

Surely there must be a simple way to separate the good from the bad?

‘An ecotourism destination should provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts, direct financial benefits for conservation, and financial benefits and empowerment for local people,’ says CEO of Cape Town Tourism, Enver Duminy. ‘On a larger scale, it must raise sensitivity to the host country’s political, environmental and social climate.’

The good

Thirty years ago, large areas of Namibia were decimated by poaching, poor farming practices, and conflict between farmers and wildlife. Most of this occurred as the land was largely privately owned. After independence, internal borders were removed and rural people were given rights over wildlife and other resources, such as lumber and paper made from materials found in the forest. ‘These rights allowed the sustainable hunting of wildlife, which made meat available without poaching,’ says a spokesperson for the Namibian Association of Community Based Natural Resource Management Support Organisations (NACSO)

Over in the Huab River Valley in north-west Namibia, The Torra Conservancy has established a financial compensation scheme to reimburse farmers for the loss of livestock as a result of predators and employs local game guards to protect wildlife from potential poachers. 

And this practice is taking place in South Africa too. Wild Life and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) has taken the Blue Flag South Africa environmental coastal-management programme one step further, by employing 200 previously disadvantaged youth from Cape Town as life savers and security guards. ‘We are giving them skills and accredited training to improve both their environment and themselves,’ says Vincent Shacks, the general manager of the ecotourism unit at WESSA. 

And when local people are making a profit from the natural environment, they are more inclined to protect it. The result? A sustainable environment and increased wildlife numbers. One other fundamental principle of ecotourism is educating visitors and increasing their awareness of the environment. ‘Your hotel should tell you why their product is different to that of the last place you stayed at,’ says Vincent. ‘For instance, that could mean using a weaker reading light because it runs on a smaller battery that requires less solar power.’

Another example is White Desert, a company that flies small groups of people from Cape Town to Antarctica in a Gulfstream private jet for adventure trips lasting up to eight days. ‘When I visited the interior of Antarctica, I realised how extraordinarily beautiful it was and how few people had actually seen it – just a few polar explorers and scientists,’ says founder Patrick Woodhead. During the evenings at their camp, Patrick and his colleagues offer lectures on the history of Antarctica, its wildlife and the early explorers of the region. ‘Whereas before it was an abstract notion, now it’s something that really means something to them,’ he explains. ‘This intrinsically means that they are going to be interested in what happens there.’

The bad

Sadly, some businesses operating in the tourism industry use the fashionable ‘eco’ label as a way to market conventional tourism with only superficial changes. Which is why it’s important to read between the lines.

‘If the surrounding environment needs to remain untouched to retain its value then a hotel should not be encouraging mass tourism,’ explains Daniel Landi, founder of The Academy Hout Bay and former Edexcel Examiner for GCSE and A-level Geography. ‘This means more people will visit than the environment can handle, which, in itself, goes against the ethos of ecotourism.’

Tourists also have the responsibility and a right to question hotels and other service providers. For example, by finding out how waste is managed. Often, recycling is separated where guests can see it but once taken behind the scenes, it is all dumped in the same place. In addition, staff should know and care about how much energy the hotel is using. 

‘This needs to be monitored,’ explains Vincent. ‘The environment is complex and resilient, which means it may buffer the ill effects for a number of years before it becomes noticeable.’

Another question to ask is whether the tour operator being used offsets their carbon emissions. For example, Patrick removes all the waste he and his visitors take to Antarctica then recycles it back in Cape Town. His company also sponsors forestry programmes in Indonesia and the Amazon rainforest. 

One surefire way to tell whether a hotel is the real deal or not is whether it is certified. There are many travel and tourism certification programmes where an external auditor rates aspects such as environmental management, cultural resources protection and socio-economic responsibilities. In Africa, programmes include Blue Flag South Africa, Fair Trade Tourism and The Botswana Ecotourism Certification System

No excuses

If only a limited number of guests can stay at a hotel and its profits need to be funnelled back into the protection of the environment then surely it’s not going to be a profit-making entity, right? 

Operating in Antarctica is expensive, from a logistical point of view; very few people can afford to go on Patrick’s trips. However, if his trips were more cost effective, he would be accused of mass tourism, which damages the environment. Yet Vincent argues there are ways in which ecotourism actually saves money. ‘The “greenest” camp I have ever visited in Botswana was one where the owner was trying to save money by restricting the amount of energy he used, sourcing local materials because it was cheaper than importing them from South Africa, and hiring local staff as it was cheaper to transport them from neighbouring villages than from further afield.

‘Without him even meaning to, his camp became the greenest in the Delta, and his guests appreciated its authenticity.’

The bottom line is that, in the long term, it will cost more money to repair a damaged environment than to protect it now. And if a pristine holiday destination is what attracts the eco-traveller in the first place, it’s in every destination’s best interest to keep both its communities and its natural resources in immaculate condition.

Easy eco evaluation

Ensure a service provider is truly eco-friendly with this checklist:

• Locally sourced food

• Employs local people

• Proper waste management system

• Monitors energy use

ª Preserves the environment and local culture.

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