Begin a conversation about responsible tourism today

This piece was written by City of Cape Town Director: Tourism Department Nombulelo Mkefa and Cape Town Tourism CEO Mariëtte du Toit-Helmbold.

Today marks the beginning of Responsible Tourism Week, and Cape Town will be joining many other destinations worldwide in celebrating 2011 Responsible Tourism Week from February 14 to 18, 2011. 

This year marks the third Responsible Tourism Week, which has been initiated and activated by The Global Journal of Practical Ecotourism. The event is online and free, and participating is an excellent way to broaden and deepen the dialogue about sustainable practice and tourism, especially in an urban environment.

In Cape Town, the City of Cape Town has partnered with Cape Town Tourism, the Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa (FEDHASA), the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA), the South African Association for the Conference Industry (SAACI), and South African Tourism to highlight this important initiative and to encourage Capetonians to participate and share their stories.

In essence, Responsible Tourism Week is a conversation, one that very much needs to happen. We are excited by the opportunity for our youth – the very people on whose future responsible tourism depends – to be most active in driving this social, media-friendly engagement. Of course, we are all part of this conversation, either online at, on Facebook (Responsible Tourism Week), Twitter (#rtweek2011) or in our everyday conversations with colleagues, neighbours and friends.

Perhaps the beginning of the conversation should be to ask, “What is responsible tourism?

What is responsible tourism?

Globally, the journey to responsible tourism began with a United Nations World Tourism Organisation conference in Manilla in 1980. The gathering was attended by 107 state delegates and aimed at clarifying the role that tourism would play in the rapidly changing world, and the responsibility of government for the development of tourism. 

It was acknowledged that any long-term analysis of humankind’s social, cultural and economic development had to take account of national and international tourist and recreational activities.

The 1987 Brundtland Commission Report broadly defined responsible tourism as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. However, the idea was best developed by Swiss economist, Jost Krippendorf, particularly in his 1987 book The Holiday Makers, which has been a touchstone for responsible tourism since its publication.

The specific characteristics of responsible tourism were first identified in 2002, in the Cape Town Declaration, ratified at the very first International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations, held in Cape Town in 2002, and this has become the world’s definition for responsible tourism.

The declaration articulated the essential need for tourism to help create “better places for people to live in, and better places to visit”. Since then, the City of Cape Town has been seeking ways to make this aspiration a reality, and to link more closely the quality of life and health of our environment to the exceptional performance of Cape Town as a tourism destination.

The city has come to realise that we are, in some respects, breaking new ground. The local authorities of very few major cities have adopted comprehensive responsible tourism policies and committed to implementing them with action plans. While there are cities with sustainability strategies and cities with tourism strategies, few link the two in such formal and robust ways. We have also found that few places that are implementing responsible tourism are doing it destination-wide; that is, with local government, the tourism industry, local communities and visitors pulled into a common effort. This is complex, time-consuming and at times less efficient, but we believe it is the only way to produce lasting results.

This is part of a worldwide shift that is taking place in tourism, with some of the largest private sector players also adopting and implementing significant sustainable tourism measures. Industry leaders like TUI, Wilderness Safaris, &Beyond, Abercrombie & Kent, Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts, Virgin and Royal Caribbean International are setting the bar high and elevating the acceptable standard of doing business in the travel industry.

Ethical consumerism, as a growing global trend, has put pressure from the travelling public on tourism businesses to be sustainable. And the industry has of late observed a number of environmentalists joining the ranks of big business because they feel that they can effect greater change here – a notion that would have been unheard of even 10 years ago.

Coupled to the economic crisis are the long-term systemic imperatives of climate-change response, job creation and poverty alleviation. This situation puts unrelenting pressure on our customers, our employees, and our markets, driving us to radically alter the way we have operated. The tourism industry has also never before been faced with such an urgent need to address the triple or rather quadruple bottom line. We must invest in solid, practical and firm principles of ethical behaviour, management and lifestyle, balancing the fragile state of our climate, communities and the natural environment with the need to grow the tourism economy to address poverty and unemployment.

Cape Town and responsible tourism

With Cape Town’s name inextricably linked to the definition of responsible tourism, our city has a special honour and obligation. Fortunately, we are blessed with many advantages that, if we continue to work together, should enable us to live up to these environmental, social and economic obligations.

A responsible tourism approach to managing the destination is being taken to create better places for people to live in, and better places to visit in Cape Town. The city has chosen this approach so that what benefits residents will also benefit visitors; what is good for the tourism industry must also be good for local communities.

The goal is a virtuous cycle, using the growth of tourism as an engine for improving the quality of life for all residents, and leveraging investments for local residents to support tourism. Responsible tourism provides a structured way for us to achieve this goal.

Cape Town holds an excellent deck of cards when it comes to the environment. The drawcard is the sheer magnificent beauty on offer: oceans, mountains, sea, flowers, whales, cliffs, dunes, caves, islands, wetlands, waterfalls, birds and much more. Cape Town’s environment has a unique and vast biodiversity on land, in the air and at sea – the Cape Floral Kingdom is the smallest and richest on earth. And Cape Town offers visitors a mild Mediterranean climate with plenty of sunshine.

Our cultural and historic offerings are growing in prominence, with hundreds of thousands of years of human habitation and permanent built settlements dating back over 350 years. A sacred circle of sites holy to Islam rings the city, a 180-year-old Chinese cemetery overlooks the urban core, and the influences of slaves, sailors, adventurers, exiles, migrants and others have added to the diverse mix.

Out of this, our goema rhythms, Cape jazz, Cape Malay cuisine, Afrikaans language, Cape Dutch architecture and other distinctive local cultural products have developed. Cape Town pioneered the first visits by outsiders into our poorer communities, called “township tours” by some, and these reflect the deep-rooted traditions of hospitality that one finds throughout much of Africa.

Visitors come wanting to experience the culture, to participate and to connect. Often, visitors cite these experiences as the most meaningful and memorable parts of their time in Cape Town. While the beauty of the mountain beckons, survey data tells us that the character of Cape Town’s people is the special element that brings tourists back again and again.

But Cape Town is not just a passive platform for tourists. We are a growing city of 3.5-million residents facing all the challenges that entails, while grappling with the structural and institutional legacy of our colonial and apartheid past, and adapting to climate change and other challenges of the future. The beauty and hospitality enjoyed by so many visitors is not matched in the daily lives of many locals. Our remarkable environment is under tremendous pressure. And the potential represented by every Capetonian is not close to being realised, certainly not on an equitable basis across socio-economic and racial groupings.

As the local authority, the City of Cape Town looks to all economic sectors to help address these challenges. While Cape Town’s beauty and diversity is in itself inherently valuable, tourism does, to a large extent, assist us in safeguarding our natural assets by giving our beautiful environment a tangible economic value.

However, tourism should not only be concerned with attracting visitors to our shores, but also with making a difference to the lives of the people who live here. Accolades, awards and global recognition mean very little if they come at the expense of our environment, or our residents and their prospects for the future.

An effective partnership

In order to strengthen the linkage between the interests of local residents and those of tourists and the industry, the City of Cape Town’s Tourism Department has been working intensively with other city departments and the local tourism industry to develop a responsible tourism plan for Cape Town. 

A year ago, the city adopted its Responsible Tourism Policy, which entails using six different “levers” to achieve sustainability in managing tourism in Cape Town. These include:

  1. Planning for economic development, transport and all other areas.
  2. Regulation, including land-use approvals, re-zonings, licensing, building plan approvals and the like.
  3. Using buildings and other immovable property owned by the City of Cape Town.
  4. Requiring organisations funded by the City of Cape Town to adhere to responsible tourism principles in contractual arrangements.
  5. Managing the city’s supply chain in a responsible manner, including transport and travel, meetings and conferences, events and so on.
  6. Integrating responsible tourism principles within the city’s performance management framework.

This policy also fits in with the city’s other policies and programmes aimed at the development of a sustainable and successful city, including: a biodiversity strategy, an electricity-saving campaign, green building guidelines, water and waste management bylaws, energy and climate action plan, Smart Living and Smart Events handbooks; a new public transportation system, and more. The city is busy implementing the policy through a comprehensive action plan, and the impact is already starting to be felt.

In addition, the Responsible Tourism Charter of 2009 saw leading industry associations FEDHASA, SATSA, SAACI and Cape Town Tourism commit to working together actively on priority issues for responsible tourism.

As a result of these sustained efforts over the past decade, Cape Town has become recognised internationally as a city that is a leader in adopting and practicing responsible tourism, including winning the Best Destination category of the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards one year ago on World Responsible Tourism Day – the world’s first, and so far only, city to be honoured in this manner.

The journey continues

The year since winning the award has been exciting and eventful in Cape Town. We hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ with a comprehensive Green Goal™ greening programme of 41 projects, held a series of workshops for the tourism industry, developed a website, produced a short film, and saw each of the signatories to the charter adopt their own policies on responsible tourism, including action plans for further implementation. A localised how-to guide is in the works, and much more.

As an industry, we also look forward to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 17), which will be taking place in Durban, South Africa in November 2011. We hope that the outcomes will propel sustainability forward into the future.

We each must take responsibility

Responsible tourism is just one element of a general shift that we each have to make, not just as a city government, not just as an industry, but as individual Cape Town residents and human beings. From the moment our children are born, we need to teach them the immense value of our people, our natural resources and the fine balance of it all. We have to stop believing in our own entitlement and start asking what it is we can do for others.

How will we ever call ourselves a responsible destination if we cannot clean up our own act, have regard for our neighbour or for our own street? If you are the leader of a family, household, school, business, social or religious group, we urge you to make this week one in which you turn your collective attention to how we are going to build a more responsible, sustainable Cape Town for ourselves and share it with our visitors.

There is a real danger of complacency, convincing ourselves that we are doing fine and that everything that defines Cape Town as one of the most beautiful places on earth will be here forever. It is a precarious balance between people and the environment and we must become much more proactive and vigilant in terms of responsible tourism and leadership.

The City of Cape Town and Cape Town Tourism are building a tourism partnership with the people of Cape Town. We are creating a destination that is future fit; one that is a beacon of excellence when it comes to responsible tourism. This is a journey we have been on for many years. We have examined our own sustainability and we are redesigning our systems to be most effective with least energy. We are meeting with our members, our stakeholders and our private and public partners to encourage a wholesale adoption of responsible tourism practice.

And this Responsible Tourism Week, we urge you to become part of the conversation and join us on the journey to making Cape Town a truly responsible destination:

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