Sustainability of Tourism in South Africa

Sustainable tourism development aims to manage the negative impacts of the industry while developing local communities both economically and socially (UNEP, 2005). Sustainable tourism originally referred to preventing environmental damage from tourism, however, it is now aimed at a variety of different developmental activities related to the tourism industry. Tourism, when left unmanaged, may have adverse effects on a local community environmentally and economically; this may include soil erosion and soil/air pollution due to the pressures of infrastructure to develop a location into a tourist destination.

Increased CO2 emissions due to air travel and water pollution are some of the negative impacts of developing tourism that may impact the locals living in the area (UNEP). Tourism may also stimulate price inflation due to fierce competitive economic environment that causes the cost of land and labor to increase (Cooper & Gilbert, 2008). Socio-culturally, tourism may cause a “commercialization” of a destinations’ local culture, reducing religious traditions, festivals and local cultures to conform to tourist expectations, causing what is known as “reconstructed ethnicity” (Grunewald, 2006).

Two approaches may be applied when developing a long-term plan for sustainable tourism development; one is a proactive approach, that aims at analyzing all the factors attributable to a local community, such as the structure and limitations of a local economy and any external factors that may play into effect. The other approach is of a reactive nature, following the theory that there are too many factors affecting a local community to all be taken into consideration when developing a long term plan, therefore any schemes are developed in order to cover all possible factors that may arise. (Cooper & Gilbert, 2008). The subject of sustainable development has caused much academic debate between scholars, with some arguing that it is a vague and loosely used term that does not cover the key issues related to sustainability in tourism. Due to the widely interpretable nature of the concept of sustainable tourism, critics speculate that the whole idea is merely a marketing ploy (Lansing & De Vries, 2007).

It is argued that a sustainable level of tourism is not a measurable factor, therefore rendering “sustainability” as an ambiguous term in reference to tourism since it remains unclear as to what it is that needs to be sustained and what the appropriate indicators for measuring sustainability are (Liu, 2003). Tourism in South Africa has yet to become a major part of the countries national income.

The development of the destination to promote entrepreneurial growth and opportunities requires government initiatives that foster the growth of the tourism industry in the country. The potential for maximizing the positive impact of tourism is tremendous (DEAT, 2002). Currently, South Africa is in the process of transforming the country into a ‘green’ destination through a variety of private sector and government initiatives to promote sustainable tourism in the country.

Sustainable tourism plays an import role in maintaining the countries wildlife, an important factor in the destinations attractiveness, and in providing economic benefits to the local community by creating jobs and improving the quality of life. South Africa was a leader in what is known as conservation tourism, through use of nature reserves and game parks. Recently, the South African Government has developed new legislation in promotion of “green tourism” in the country, not only to benefit visitors to South Africa, but in an effort to improve the lives of the locals.

An example of this is the Madikwe Game Reserve in the North West of the country, a project aimed at creating jobs and enriching conservation efforts (Madikwe Game Reserve). South Africa also went on to extend the label of Fair Trade products to tourism products; encompassing accommodation and a variety of tourist activities, such as adventure packages and bicycle tours (Fair Trade Tourism).

Another initiative to promote sustainable tourism, in relation to the environment, is the Food and Trees for Africa program, which allows visitors to the country to calculate the carbon foot print produced by their travel to South Africa, and donate a corresponding amount to plant fruit trees or indigenous trees nearby schools, clinics and impoverished areas (Food and Trees for Africa). Other initiatives to promote responsible tourism in South Africa include a program by the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) to protect the countries sea life.

This is done through informing visitors of seafood restaurants whether a species is endangered or not by providing them with the opportunity of sending an SMS to the initiative of their menu choice, a response is then received indicating whether the item they have chosen is ‘green’, ‘orange’ (endangered but legal) or ‘red’ (endangered and not legal to eat) (SASSI). Such initiatives allow tourists to take an active role in the protection of their destination and promote a sense of responsibility among visitors.