Africa: Eco-tourism represents one of our best chances

eco-tourism women

When it comes to the African visitor economy, the phrase “eco-tourism” is mostly redundant. After all, the entire industry hinges on conservation and sound ecological practices.

This is in the interests of environmental protection, of course — but, just as important, there are and will always be critical success factors for tourism operators on the continent. Africa is blessed with many of the world’s most irresistible destinations, of which we are rightly proud. But they remain chronically undersold.

As the World Economic Forum pointed out in 2015, sub-Saharan Africa’s tourism infrastructure still lags behind much of the world. We need to market our assets better — and surely there is none greater than our awesomely diverse natural environment and staggering array of flora and fauna — but do so in a sustainable way that doesn’t impose an undue ecological footprint.

There are plenty of examples, tragically, on our continent whereby leaders have failed to protect our natural resources, allowing foreign entities to extract them for their purposes, ultimately depleting our economic foundations. We must not make the same mistake by allowing unconstrained and poorly regulated growth in the tourism sector. Eco-tourism represents one of the best chances to both support development across the continent and protect our wildlife and wild places.

The significance of the sector to socioeconomic prosperity, and the role of communities in conservation, must be quantified, given their proper value and secured for generations to come. For too long, governments, tour operators and NGOs have been operating in silos, unlike more mature tourism markets like Australia, where national and regional tourism bodies facilitate collaboration among private operators as well as the civil aviation sector and local and national governments. Such bodies exist in Africa, but they tend to be patchily effective at best.

Fortunately, that’s changing — and the results are nothing short of remarkable. The Africa Sustainable Tourism Care Foundation (ASTCF), which promotes sustainable tourism and ethical travel practices, is a case in point. Its focus on economic, socio-cultural, and environmental sustainability is designed to keep and preserve the ecological integrity of the environment and contribute to local community development.

Meanwhile, public, private, NGO partnerships have supported the restocking of national parks with endangered species, especially rhinos, lions and elephants. In one example led by African Parks just two weeks ago, six black rhinos arrived in Zakouma National Park in Chad in an historic reintroduction — bringing the species back to the country for the first time in half a century. Gorilla tourism has also emerged as a case study in responsible tourism.

Strictly limiting visitor numbers preserves their natural habitat. Some of the guides who accompany tourists into the gorilla rangeland were once poachers; tourism has enabled them to secure better, safer employment, as well as ensure the future for this remarkable species. It’s a virtuous cycle that applies continent wide: More wildlife means more visitors, which in turn creates more jobs and economic opportunity for the growing number of African communities for which tourism is the lifeblood.

BY: CARMEN NIBIGIRA Former Head of the East Africa Tourism Platform

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