Ethical Tourism – Does South Africa have lessons for the world?

Following on from last week’s launch of South Africa’s Minimum Standards For Responsible Tourism (which I reported on here),  it was interesting to receive’s regular newsletter – Vision on Sustainable Tourism – which carried a link to Catherine Mack’s article ‘Ethics and tourism take centre stage.’

Ms. Mack specialises in ethical travel (she has a masters degree in responsible tourism management and blogs at Ethical Traveller), and she attended a recent high-level conference on the subject which was held in Madrid, and which was attended by some of the world’s top travel politicians.

“Ethics is a word I have always been encouraged to avoid when writing about sustainable tourism,” she writes. “It is one of those words which makes people nervous, having seen many company directors, tourist board executives and travel PRs turn a funny colour when you mention the E Word. Few even know of the existence of the World Tourism Organisation’s (WTO) Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, endorsed by the UN in 2001 and publicly available on the UN website ( Ten years have passed since then and yet last week saw the first ever International Congress on Ethics and Tourism, organised by UNWTO, in an attempt to get the E-message out there again. Or more likely, deal with the fact that ten years later most people in the tourism industry are still not prepared to incorporate ethics into the core of their business practices. Ten years of denial is a long time, so was a day and a half of presentations and debate going to convince those with the purse strings and policy documents to feel the fear and do it anyway?”

Her main gripe is that the conference was just another talk shop, with few – if any – speakers or delegates who’d actually put responsible tourism in place.

Perhaps they should have invited some South Africans.

In my time as a tourism writer, I’ve come across many, many genuine people who’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that the tourism they practice truly benefits their local communities.

Four spring to mind:

  • Meet the People Tours, which is run by Back Road Safarisin Mossel Bay, and which has found a way of bringing small businesspeople and tourists together in meaningful ways;
  • Calabash Tours in Port Elizabeth, whose township tours (which they never call ‘township tours’) impressed me so much – even though I usually hate the idea (I wrote about their Real City Tour here);
  • Uthando South Africa – which offers ‘philanthropic cultural tours’ in Cape Town, and which does so much for the communities in which it operates (I wrote about my experience of their product here); 
  • And, of course, Stormsriver Adventures – which basically supports the entire economy of the Tsitsikamma Village.

Stormsriver Adventures, and its main product, Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours, employs 45 permanent staff, and a core of 20 casuals (most of whom are students in the local community, who use the income they earn during peak visitor periods to finance their studies); they also provide work for four people at the Stormsriver Backpackers, and six in a BEE company which they’ve created called Adventure Footage – which films the Canopy Tours.

Training and upliftment of the staff is a major concern for Storms River Adventures, and every member of the company is required to undergo an initial course in responsible tourism, where they learn about the triple bottom line (community, environment, and business). And almost everyone is qualified as a FGASA site guide – and many of them have passed their FGASA Level 1 and Level 2 courses, too.

On top of that, Storms River Adventures has a corporate social responsibility programme that supports an HIV and AIDS awareness programme by (amongst other things) employing the incredible Abel Abrahams, who is a qualified counselor and home-based caregiver; supports the local children by supplying meals to the village school (more than 55,000 meals to 5 to 15 year olds in the last year alone); supports the local Animal Welfare and Education Programme which teaches kids a value system around animals (at a direct cost of more than R200,000 in 2010),; and provides help where it can with clothing distribution and feeding of the poorest of the poor.

And it carries silver level Greenline Responsible Tourism accreditation.

If that’s not responsible tourism, what is?

So here’s my challenge to our government and our marketers: if these examples are anything to go by, South Africa is indeed leading the way.

But are you telling this to the world?

If it’s true that responsible tourism is no longer a niche market, but that it affects every aspect of the travel chain, I think you should be.

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