Responsible tourism must be the foundation of tourism development

As tourism grows to join the ranks of the world’s major commercial industries, so do the questions around the impact this industry has on our fragile world and its people. Tourism can do as much harm as good – if not more – if not developed and managed responsibly. The world is rife with examples.

It is a fact that much of what we spend, even in developing countries, still lands back in the pocket of the Western world, with little benefit to the local communities we are actually visiting. International tourism remains dominated by a few large corporations that control flights, accommodation and often what the visitor consumes, sees and purchases.

But the tourism landscape is changing. Travellers are more and more mindful of the impact their travels have on the lands they visit in the short and the long term. In The Good Alternative Travel Guide, Rolf Wesche and Andy Drum of Defending our Rainforest are quoted: “The quest of the responsible traveller is to learn, to be understanding, to share, to contribute – rather than to act as a consumer who seeks maximum gratification at a minimum expense.”

I was invited to participate as guest speaker at the 2011 Conference on Planning and Developing Community-Based Rural Tourism held in the Philippines from January 12 to 14, 2011. Attended by more than 700 delegates from Asia, mostly from the Philippines, the conference targeted tourism leaders, prominent businesses and decision makers in government. 

The Philippines, like South Africa, has an incredible natural beauty and interesting cultural mix. Developers have descended upon pristine beaches and forests to set up new tourism ventures, all dubbed community-based, ecotourism experiences. There are few restrictions, legislation is outdated and not implemented, limited environmental impact studies are undertaken and there is not much evidence of economic benefits trickling down to grassroot communities, with many still blindsided by the promise of immediate financial gain. But many citizens, stakeholders and visitors are starting to question traditional tourism development and practices, placing pressure on government and the industry to change and embrace a more responsible approach to tourism development.

With a growing number of visitors demanding more meaningful and responsible experiences, people want to see their holidays making a positive difference. Voluntourism and personal retreat have become as important as discovery and escapism.

As a developing country, we have an opportunity to lay the right foundation, and Cape Town is well placed to take advantage of this trend within the growing competitive tourism market. Recognition and support from local and national government for responsible tourism places us at an advantage to many other developing destinations where there are still no real strategies, legislation or support in place.

For a city like Cape Town it is imperative that responsible tourism be the backbone of our industry and its future development.

Cape Town’s story is not a pretty one, but it is real. In a world where the story has become the unique selling point, rather than the product, and where people are yearning to get off the bus and immerse themselves, getting closer to the hearts and homes of people in places with rough edges, we have an opportunity to shape a new tourism destiny for Cape Town.

Celebrated as one of the top leisure tourism cities in the world and renowned for its natural beauty, sophisticated African flare, cosmopolitan lifestyle and world-class tourism infrastructure, Cape Town has another side – less glamorous and more and more difficult to disguise.

Prof Edgar Pieterse from the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town says that the challenge Cape Town faces is not merely the fact that the working classes and poor are on the periphery of the city. The more fundamental challenge is the lack of real social engagement across class and cultural divides between Capetonians (a legacy of apartheid). He talks further about making a connection on the basis of shared interests and says: “It is only through meaningful face-to-face, ordinary encounters that the demons of racism and prejudice can be expunged.”

Africa’s first World Cup inspired the world and changed its perception of our country, and city, forever. For a moment, both we and the world forgot the negative legacy of our past, the crime and the serious social problems so deeply embedded within our society. We were again the united rainbow nation and the “real winners of the World Cup”.

As we pat ourselves on the back for our big and very successful year, the glory days of the 2010 World Cup are fading into memory.

Certainly, in a world defined by the “fifteen minutes of fame” mentality, Cape Town’s window of opportunity is already closing and, to many people, promises of prosperity ring hollow. Fencing in our natural assets to protect it from the social problems creeping into our perfect Cape Town is not a solution.

To be a great place to visit, we must first and foremost be a great place to live. But the reality is that, for most, Cape Town is not yet a great place to live. This has to be our biggest goal. Tourism, and in particular responsible tourism, can be a vehicle for real economic growth and social transformation.

We will not be able to build a sustainable and responsible destination without our citizens. As Baba Dioum says, “At the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will only understand what we are taught.”

It is time to redefine Cape Town beyond the well-known beautiful stereotypes. It is time to involve all the people of Cape Town to tell our full story, warts and all. As the tourism sector we must commit ourselves to a sector that is more accessible, more relevant and more beneficial to all our people.

Cecil Rajendra, a human rights activist from Malaysia, said, “The raw material of the tourist industry is the flesh and blood of people and their cultures.” The destinations we visit when on holiday are people’s homes; they are not merely postcard pictures.

Cape Town won the best destination category of the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards on World Responsible Tourism Day in 2009, and there are many success stories to celebrate and share with the world, but our journey has only started. Let us start a conversation about a more responsible and real tourism future for our city that will make Cape Town a better place to live and a much more meaningful place to visit.

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