Leading the way in sustainable tourism

Sustainable tourism. Responsible tourism. Green tourism. Ecotourism.

By Fikile Tikana


Big words and weighty concepts, often accompanied by a lot of hype and self-praise by various tourism stakeholders claiming to be ‘leaders in the field’. But scratch a bit deeper and often their sustainable cupboards are found to be pretty bare.


However, in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent there are also many organisations and entities that have done remarkable work in the field of sustainable or responsible tourism, and much progress has been made over the past decade or more. But just what exactly is sustainable tourism?


Most definitions describe it as an attempt to find a suitable balance between the social, environmental and economic impacts of tourism and the role it plays in conserving biodiversity. It entails minimising the impacts of tourism on the environment, including the fauna and flora, and local culture and communities. Its aim is also to help generate sustainable employment for local communities and ensuring that tourism development is a positive experience for local people, tourism companies, and tourists themselves.


How well is South Africa doing in promoting responsible tourism?


In the global organisation Responsible Travel’s first league table of tourist boards that was published two years ago, South Africa achieved a top score out of 50 countries, with countries like China, the United States and France at the bottom. And last year at the World Travel Market Africa 2017 held in Cape Town, the South African Blood Lions campaign and the Coffee Shack Backpackers were announced as overall winners. A number of other South African operations also won in other categories.

Global organisations

Globally there are a number of organisations that try to encourage responsible tourism and set down standards and criteria, as well as certifying various tourism stakeholders based on their commitment and contribution to responsible tourism.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) establishes and manages global sustainable standards, known as the GSTC Criteria, which include Destination Criteria for public policy-makers and destination managers, and Industry Criteria for hotels and tour operators. The council says these are the guiding principles and minimum requirements that any tourism business or destination should aspire to reach in order to protect and sustain the world’s natural and cultural resources, while ensuring tourism meets its potential as a tool for conservation and poverty alleviation.

Another global organisation advancing sustainable tourism is the United Nations’ tourism agency, the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). The UNWTO says, as the leading international organisation in the field of tourism, UNWTO promotes tourism as a driver of economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability and offers leadership and support to the sector in advancing knowledge and tourism policies worldwide.

The UNWTO encourages the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, to maximize tourism’s socio-economic contribution while minimizing its possible negative impacts, and is committed to promoting tourism as an instrument in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), geared towards reducing poverty and fostering sustainable development worldwide.

A number of organisations are also active on the African continent in promoting responsible tourism, among them the Sustainable Tourism Certification Alliance Africa, formerly known as the Sustainable Tourism Network Southern Africa (STNSA). This is an alliance of sustainable tourism certification stakeholders in Africa, with an initial focus on countries in southern and East Africa, but hoping to extend its activities across the entire continent. The Alliance aims to enable an integrated approach to sustainable tourism certification throughout the continent.

According to the Alliance, the external environment is characterised by trends towards international accreditation, harmonisation, dual certification and mutual recognition between standards-setting organisations. The Alliance provides services on behalf of members seeking to secure international recognition, mutual recognition and other forms of partnerships.

Responsible tourism in South Africa

In South Africa a large number of tourism services and products providers strive to advance sustainable tourism in their offerings. These companies and operations are usually members of, or have been certified by any one of a number of organisations in South Africa that set standards for and advance the practices of sustainable tourism, among them Fair Trade, Green Tourism Active and Responsible Tourism South Africa.

From its side, the South African government has through its Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), since split into two separate departments and ministries, done much to advance responsible tourism. In 1996 it published a White Paper on the Development and Promotion of Tourism in South Africa, in which responsible tourism was described as “an absolute necessity if South Africa is to emerge as a successful international competitor”. Guidelines as well as a manual for Responsible Tourism were designed by DEAT during 2002 as a basis for implementing responsible tourism practices throughout the tourism industry.

Responsible tourism took a major step forward in 2002 with the inception of the annual Imvelo Awards for Responsible Tourism in the hospitality industry and a year later, with the introduction of the Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa trademark.

The Department of Tourism, in partnership with the South African National Accreditation System (SANAS), also developed a National Minimum Standard on Responsible Tourism (NMSRT). The NMSRT is a standard to accredit certification programmes, sometimes referred to as “certifying the certifier”. According to the department, this standard serves three purposes:

  • To establish a common understanding of the minimum criteria for responsible tourism;
  • To promote responsible tourism in the tourism sector, including accommodation, hospitality, travel distribution system, as well as all organs of state and entities, organised labour and communities involved or interested in the tourism sector in South Africa; and
  • To establish the minimum criteria for certification of the sustainability of organisations in the tourism sector.

Other organisations

According to its website, Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa (FTTSA) is a pioneering initiative that promotes equitable and sustainable tourism development in South Africa through a range of activities including awareness raising, capacity building, advocacy and the facilitation of the world’s first Fair Trade tourism certification programme. The FTTSA certification programme awards a special certification Trademark (label) to tourism enterprises in South Africa that meet specific sustainability criteria based on global Fair Trade standards and locally relevant issues such as skills development, ownership and HIV/Aids management.

FTTSA was established under IUCN-South Africa in 2001, as a pilot project to test the relevance of Fair Trade to the post-apartheid context. Since 2004, FTTSA operates as an independent non-profit organisation in South Africa. To date, FTTSA has certified close to 70 establishments across South Africa. A wide variety of tourism establishments have qualified for the FTTSA-label including hotels, safari lodges, backpacker lodges, guesthouses, cultural tours and eco-adventure activities. Many of these products are small, emerging, and community-based businesses that are wholly or partially owned by rural black communities disenfranchised by apartheid.

Fair Trade Tourism promotes sustainable tourism development through facilitating the world’s first tourism Fair Trade certification programme. The FTT label is awarded to tourism businesses currently operational in South Africa signifying their commitment to Fair Trade criteria including: fair wages and working conditions, fair purchasing, fair operations, equitable distribution of benefits and respect for human rights, culture and environment. This is the label responsible travellers should look for when selecting service providers.

A number of other non-profit organisations are also involved in advancing sustainable tourism in South Africa, such as the African Safari Lodge Foundation (ASLF). This non-profit company has an independent board of directors and works mainly in South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique. The organisation participates in various African and global networks to implement a development programme designed to overcome various existing barriers and enhance the real contribution that safari lodges can make to rural development.  The company states that its mission is to facilitate economic growth, ownership, skills development and job-creation through responsible forms of tourism and related land uses following a “rights-based” approach.

SADC initiative

Back in 2005, the tourism and environment ministers of nine Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, namely Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, endorsed a transfrontier conservation area (TFCA) development strategy for 2010 and beyond. Its main aim was to increase the tourism potential of southern Africa by consolidating the marketing and investment promotion efforts of existing transfrontier initiatives. South Africa was given a mandate to play a leading role in coordinating the implementation of the strategy.

Boundless Southern Africa is the marketing brand for transfrontier conservation areas developed in terms of this strategy. Seven TFCAs stretching across the borders of the nine participating countries are being marketed as preferred tourist and investment destinations.

Another commendable development is that of Eco Atlas, which has developed an ethical directory and green guide for responsible travellers that highlights the social and environmental achievements in respect of accommodation, restaurants, activities, products and services in South Africa. The use of the twenty Eco Choice icons by tourism service providers enables tourists to see at a glance who is achieving sustainable goals enabling them to make informed decisions about which businesses to support.

Recognising the fact that tourism is the world’s largest job creator, another initiative, Open Africa, set out to stimulate rural development by leveraging communities’ collective tourism assets. It does this by connecting remote areas with travel markets in a competitively sustainable and innovative way. Its starting point is to identify products and then clustering entrepreneurs into branded networks that strengthen their combined power and market appeal.

Open Africa works with local communities to link existing community-based tourism businesses, for example accommodation providers, tour guides, and local artisans, into off-the-beaten track, self-drive routes, clustering travel attractions in an area for travellers to explore. It also identifies enterprise opportunities along a route and match them with potential or existing entrepreneurs and helps to develop the business concept, product development and branding, as needed. Among its other activities it lists capacity building, skills provision, marketing, the installing of monitoring and evaluation tools to track route challenges and outcomes, and enhancing conservation by various means.

Another non-profit company, the Sustainable Tourism Partnership Programme (STPP), was established to facilitate the implementation of sustainable tourism practices in smaller accommodation establishments and tourism SMMEs across South Africa.  The programme is also closely aligned to the recommendations of the United Nations Environmental Programme, which shifts the focus of sustainable tourism development to SMMEs.

The STPP uses tourism as a catalyst for local economic development. Since its inception, the STPP is viewed as a thought leader in sustainable tourism implementation. The programme has been developed in alignment to, amongst others, the National Tourism Sector Strategy and the National Minimum Standard for Responsible Tourism NMSRT (SANS 1162:2011). As such the programme incorporates environmental, cultural, heritage and social criteria, economic best practice, community resilience, universal accessibility and service excellence.

Consulting companies

A number of consulting companies are also active in the tourism industry in South Africa. Among these, the Heritage Environmental Management Company (Heritage) was first established in 2001 as an environmental rating initiative for the hospitality industry in South Africa.  Its first certification was awarded to the Sandton Convention Centre in 2002 to coincide with the 2002 Earth Summit which was held in Johannesburg.

Since then, the company has expanded its certification categories and product range to provide certification solutions to all facets of the service industry including hotels and accommodation; game lodges and resorts; zoos and aquaria; meetings and events; golf courses; residential estates, banking, retail businesses and business services.  Heritage is currently being applied by over 150 businesses across eight African countries and, says the company, it is recognised as the leading certification brand in Africa.

Another company in this field is GT Active, a sustainability management company offering sustainability assessments and certification for the hospitality industry. The company says its seeks to change  consumer behaviour, processes and strategies through informed choice, raising awareness around all sustainability aspects and positioning its clients as leading responsible tourism service providers.

Levelle Perspectives, another consulting company, says it provides business development services in Africa that support globally recognised principles of sustainable tourism, while ensuring that local context is prioritised. The company works with stakeholders to find solutions that ensure the needs of business are balanced with those of the local area in a way that benefits everyone. Specific focus areas include using tourism as a tool to achieve local development objectives through, e.g. sustainable livelihood and supply chain development, as well as corporate social responsibility that is designed to empower local communities and ensure that the integrity of their local environments is maintained.

Serendipity Africa is another such a responsible tourism consultancy based in Cape Town. Serendipity Africa offers a range of specialist development services including responsible tourism training and mentoring, product or destination marketing, fundraising guidance and media support. In addition the company says it undertakes projects that create positive frameworks for sustainable tourism destination planning and strategies for improving tourism in destinations.

It is clear that much work has been done over the past decade or more to firmly establish responsibility and sustainability in tourism in South Africa and throughout Africa. In itself it has given rise to entire new industry. Many South African tourism services and establishments offer high-level sustainable and responsible products, benefitting not only tourism, but also the environment and local communities. In many instance government and South Africa’s official tourism authorities, as well as the country’s national parks and nature reserves authorities have been intimately involved.

In a number of instances this has also led to local communities participating in, being integrated into and benefiting from these initiatives, with numerous examples found in some of the country’s leading national, regional and transfrontier parks and reserves.