Big business isn't generally a phrase that comes to mind when thinking of the African continent, but since the prevalence of eco-tourism in the early 90s (the term was first used in 1983), Africa has become a go-to destination for people across the globe looking for the ultimate experience with nature.

But is ecotourism a sustainable alternative to conventional tourism or is it just a clever way for businesses to make money, while looking like they care? Is the trend towards ecotourism about preserving and teaching respect for the natural world, or is it causing more harm than good? 

People or profits?

For eco-tourism to meet its stated goals, it is important to engage local people. Using the Environment and Community Oriented (ECO) system, the community is an integral part of the industry. By enlisting locals, ecotourism not only keeps much-needed revenue within the community, but also gives locals an incentive to preserve the ecosystem.

Ecotourism in Africa involves the traveller in the community by introducing him/her to local people and customs and allowing them to see wildlife in the context of education and protection.

The endangered rhino, protected by 24/7 armed guards, Thula Thula Private Game Reserve, Kwazulu Natal

In East Africa, 70 percent of the national parks and game reserves are on pastoralist lands, most of which belong to the Masaai. Because much of this land has been taken away, it has caused the Masaai to lose out on their primary form of industry, raising livestock.

Indeed, tourism has not brought any tangible economic benefits to the Masaai people. Despite their loss of land, employment opportunities go to better-educated workers from other parts of the country.

In fact, in Kenya and most African countries, many of the areas used for eco-tourism are protected or owned by tourism corporations (mostly international). This means profits are not ploughed back into the local economy and locals are often unable to develop the land for themselves.

Ole Kamuaro, in the article Ecotourism: Suicide or Development paints a disturbing picture. He presents the example of Tanzania, where a game reserve in Mkomazi was designated without informing or consulting local people, who simply received an eviction order from their own government.

In the Ngorongoro district, the Sultan of the United Arab Emirates was allocated a hunting corridor through vast grazing land, with no limit set on hunting. The Masai were never informed of the development. When they reacted with indignation, grazing restrictions were imposed on their herds.

Money in whose pocket?

For ecotourism to meet its stated goals - profits need to remain within local communities. Revenue generated from tourists is theoretically used to promote sustainable economic growth and community-based awareness. This awareness, or pride, ideally would encourage efforts to protect and preserve local or regional nature-based tourist attractions.

Face painting on a cultural tour, Bulungula Transkei

According to UNWTO, only about 5% of the monies made at these corporate resorts actually makes its way back into the community. Local people are simply NOT getting their fair share. Almost 90% of the money is funnelled out of the country to fill corporate coffers overseas.

This contradicts what international tourism bodies define as ecotourism. These large corporations use the concept of ecotourism as a sales pitch, without living up to what ecotourism is really about.

Many label themselves as eco-friendly by engaging in small changes that appear to be doing good on the surface, but without actually making any kind of measurable difference - a process known as greenwashing.

A large hotel using biodegradable cleaning products, using eco-friendly bulbs or recycling some plastic might get the same eco-credentials as an off-the-grid jungle lodge which harvests rainwater, grows organic food, is built out of natural materials using local labour and is owned by the community.

Experiencing local culture or destroying it?

Ecotourism can also have a significant cultural impact on local communities. Ecotourists usually want to experience local culture, which can have a positive effect on that culture as it may induce a feeling of pride in the traditional way of life.

Traditional African Mask

Moreover, the ecotourism industry tends to attract tourists who may be culturally insensitive and alienate local residents.

Indeed, many tourists are blatantly disrespectful of local customs. Women (and men) walking around in revealing clothing in a country where the social (and often religious) norm is to be completely covered up (for instance in the UAE) is an example of a cultural clash. This behaviour causes ill-will and can cause local people to stray from their beliefs and customs.

Often tourists (and eco-tourism companies) see locals as an exotic backdrop to natural scenery and wildlife. The fact that these people can be subjected to exploitation and suppression by dominant forces has largely been ignored.

The unthinking tourist snaps photos without permission or subtlety, offending locals - many of whom object for religious reasons or even the belief that a photo captures their soul.

San Rock art, Cederberg

Many locals would acquiesce if you asked, if you gave them a copy, or even if you paid them.

Tourists are often unwilling to completely immerse themselves in local culture - which means that local communities adjust to meet their demands. Traditional food, craftwork and customs are replaced with those of the tourists homeland, effectively providing all the 'comforts of home'.

Yet by doing this, so-called ecotourists are taking away the very essence of travel. Responsible travel means you must accept your surroundings for what they are, and enjoy them without trying to change them.

Ecotourism: Suicide or Development,there is rarely any acknowledgment, much less support, of indigenous people's struggle for cultural survival, self-determination, freedom of cultural expression, rights to ancestral lands, and control over land use and resource management.

Though ecotourism attempts to integrate indigenous communities into the market driven economic system, the underlying objective is to keep them as archaeological artifacts, stimulating the tourist's nostalgic desire for the authentic, the untouched, the primitive and the savage.

Zulu Cultural Dancing, Kwazulu Natal

Social benefits or degradation?

With the establishment of protected areas, locals have often lost their homes and livelihood, often without compensation. They have been marginalised, their fertile land taken over for conservation and their very survival threatened.

Though ecotourism initiatives aim to help local communities, in many cases local people are not involved in the planning or implementation of ecotourism ventures. They are often not part of decisions as to whether a project is even viable or on distribution of common resources and revenue.

Other social side effects include significant behavioural change - including loss of traditional values, increased crime, corruption and misused funds, promiscuity (often leading to prostitution), and the spread of diseases (including AIDS) from mass tourism sites to ecotourism destinations. These are issues that are often avoided in ecotourism discussions.

Development or deforestation?

One of the most serious impacts of commercial ecotourism is the seizing of virgin territories - converting them into national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other wilderness areas that are then sold to ecotourists as green destinations. This often displaces both people and animals from their natural habitats, and leads to changed behaviour.

In South Africa, for instance, baboons have turned into garbage feeders, becoming familiar with the presence of ecotourists and eating the food and rubbish left behind (or even stealing it from you directly).

Natural vegatative areas have also been cut down to allow for the safety and convenience of tourists. Game parks are crossed with an unsightly network of roads and tracks as tour guides search for the Big 5 to showcase to increasingly demanding clientele.

Tourist over-capacity is a very real dilemma, and as the industry grows it becomes more prominent. Sustainable growth in an industry with the potential for indefinite growth is difficult to achieve, given the potential for high profits at the expense of the environment and local cultures.

Says Ole Kamuaro: "Any commercial venture into unspoiled, pristine natural places with or without the "eco" prefix is a contradiction in terms. To generate substantial revenue; whether from foreign exchange, tourism business, local communities or conservation; the number of tourists must be high, which inevitably means greater pressures on the environment".

Concerned ecotourists need to look into the five more important facets of any destination:

Water usage/harvesting of rainwater, (natural) building/production, sourcing of local food and products, community-empowerment initiatives, conservation and preservation as well as waste disposal.

Ultimately, ecotourism must limit the number of tourists, provide adequate controls and sustainability measures and thoroughly examine the environmental impact of tourism to ensure a positive impact vs a negative or even neutral one.

Bush camp at Kwattu San cultural centre

A blessing or a curse?

Eco-tourism in Africa presents both a blessing and a curse to the area. It has increased awareness of the continet, which bolsters not any the tourism industry but also the economy, while many tourist organisations are committed to preserving the area by creating sustainable trips.

This provides locals with a chance to participate in a form of industry that their ancestors could have never dreamed of.

Mbolompo Homestay, an ecotourism venture in the Transkei

At the same time, as more land becomes privatised and protected for tourism, indigenous people who have not benefited from tourism face deeper poverty. They have lost hunting and farming land that used to belong to no one and everyone. 

Time will tell what impact eco-tourism has on Africa's people, land, and animals. Even conservationists differ over the best way to ensure ecotourism is carried out. Some argue for self-regulation, while others argue for international standards and frameworks.

At best, ecotourism ventures (whether a destination, lodge, tour company or project) should be scrutinised, monitored and controlled through strict regulations and laws, as well as informed public debate.

Understanding how to live in harmony with nature, and ensure a positive impact is crucial to the success of ecotourism in Africa, and intelligent design tools such as permaculture allow for an increased awareness of ecological systems and strategies for the recovery of exploited agricultural land and increased self-sufficiency.

Ultimately, the more you know about the potential for destructive human impact, the more you can take measures to tread lightly. Tourists should be informed and educated about potentially adverse environmental and social impacts of ecotourism. But don't wait around for someone to educate you.

Do your research. Be sure that you are keeping your footprint minimal - so that we can enjoy Africa's natural beauty indefinitely, and not contribute to its deterioration.

This article was written by Dana Rasmussen and Melissa Andrews published on Dana writes about travel destinations, social media, and online reputation management.

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