Responsible tourism: Unlocking the potential

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 or not more harm than good if not developed and managed responsibly.

Our world is changing rapidly

  • The world economy has faltered – with long-haul travel hard hit – and there is more competition than ever between destinations.
  • Tourism is fragile. The extra-ordinary events of the first few months in 2011 have again demonstrated this.
  • The unrest in the Middle East, subsequent increase in oil and fuel prices and the electricity hikes will have an impact on tourism and could potentially play havoc with bookings and profit margins in the tourism sector.
  • International arrivals may decrease (particularly from destinations still recovering from a recession) as the cost of airline tickets rise due to the increase in world oil prices.
  • To add further strain on the South African tourism industry, the strengthening rand is driving international tourists to (often shorter-haul) destinations that offer more value for their money.
  • In Cape Town, we have seen the trajectory of tourism from the assurance of a golden period of plentiful demand and lesser supply to abundant, world-class supply and shrinking, competitively driven, financially constrained demand.
  • According to experts, international tourism in 2011 is expected to grow by 3 to 5% on the “all-time” highs of previous years.
  • Growth is being driven by emerging markets such as Asia and South America while mature markets are seeing low growth.
  • The demographics of our customers have changed
  • The way people travel has been transformed irreversibly by increased urbanisation, technology and the web.
  • Time is now our most precious commodity…
  • Proliferation of nature tourism emphasizes people’s yearning for authenticity, to get back to basics, organic living and be more in touch with nature and their spirituality.
  • 50% of the world’s population can no longer see the stars…
  • The internet has become the predominant channel for consumers to search for and buy travel, with up to 95% of the world’s constantly connected generation of travellers and tourists searching for information online.
  • The moral dilemma of long-haul travel in the light of climate change is also likely to affect destinations like South Africa in years to come.
  • More and more people will question the acceptability of flying long-haul for recreational or leisure purposes. It is predicted that individual carbon budgets could be in the pipeline. Cape Town as a long haul destination must be able to answer these tough questions and promote sustainable local experiences to offset long-haul travel.

Sustainability is no longer a nice to have, but a need to have. With the world heading towards a massive over-capacity and demand shrinking in traditional markets, destinations and businesses have no choice but to cascade sustainable tourism practices throughout entire operations and experiences offered.

Destinations must understand how new travel behaviours will impact on us and we must adjust our marketing, communication and offering to meet the needs of our customers.

It is about the customer, not the destination. Once we get this, we can influence their travel choices and match our product offering with the kind of experiences travellers are demanding and that support the sustainable development of tourism in Cape Town. 

Ethical consumerism has put pressure from the travelling public on tourism businesses to be more responsible in their practices and policies.

In Harold Goodwin and Justin Francis’ paper on the relationship between Ethical and Responsible Tourism and Consumer Trends written in 2003 already, they argue that holidaymakers are seeking holidays which provide them with more than two weeks on the beach and a tan.

John King argued in his 2002 journal on Responsible Travel that travel is increasingly ‘about experiences, fulfilment and rejuvenation’ rather than about ‘places and things’; and that the lifestyle market is of increasing importance.


Rolf Wesche and Andy Drum from Defending our Rainforest says in the “Good Alternative Travel Guide” (by Tourism Concern) that: “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.”

USA: book well in advance and prefer pre-packaged tours; luxury ecotourism is the fastest growing sector for conscientious U.S. travelers and is remaining relatively strong despite the economic downturn.

Germany: world’s largest outbound market, highly experienced travelers who are most likely to purchase carbon offsets, seek more stimulating travel, expect tourism companies to offer environmentally and socially responsible products.

Dutch: experienced travelers, very high propensity (81%) to travel abroad and a preference for sun and beach holidays. They seek good quality and high value for cost and are interested in responsible tourism products and destinations

British: savvy, experienced and avid travelers, who regard holidays as a necessity rather than a luxury. View responsible and ethical travel as important. Within the EU, the U.K. ranks just behind Germany in visits to developing countries. South Africa’s major source market despite decline in outbound travel due to recession


As cities (especially within the context of a developing country), we have an opportunity to lay the right foundation and to use these new trends to our advantage within the growing competitive tourism market and ever increasing pressure on tourism to deliver real economic growth and benefits to communities.

Cities are defined as the “prism through which countries is viewed” and are the new super brands of the 21st century.

Cities have history, heritage and a future. Cities are “Capitals of the Mind” and they have the ability to become lead brands for countries, therefore leading responsible tourism.


For a city like Cape Town it is imperative that responsible tourism be the backbone of our industry and its marketing, not just a campaign or separate product offering that can easily be sidelined.

Cape Town is best known around the globe as a place of beauty – the numerous accolades bare testimony to this.

Cape Town has exceptional diversity in a small geographic area, making it a destination with remarkable potential to be a leader in responsible tourism.

The sheer economic value of Cape Town’s natural heritage is driven largely by its importance to tourism. With a significant park such as Table Mountain National Park running through the centre of the City (and indeed the greater Peninsula), natural biodiversity is a birthright of all Capetonians and a marvel that is appreciated and admired by visitors.

Voted the best destination in the world by Tripadvisor, Cape Town offers exceptional beaches (many of them Blue Flag status), architectural and archaeological heritage, cultural attractions such as the Bo-Kaap and Cape Flats, museums, shops and art galleries and a geographical layout that means one can easily and quickly travel from sea to mountain to City to rural regions.

The Cape Floral Kingdom, one of Conservation International’s Global Hotspots of Biodiversity, is the smallest, but richest in the world with approximately 9600 species of indigenous plants, of which 70 percent are endemic.

It is no wonder that National Geographic called Cape Town one of the places of a lifetime…

But, Cape Town tells the tale of two cities.

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 into the hearts and homes of people in places with rough edges, we have an opportunity to shape a new tourism destiny for our destinations.

Cape Town’s complex history has certainly left its mark on the socio-economic dynamic of the City. Poverty stalks many communities and equality of opportunity has been slow to spread in a post-apartheid reality.

To be a great place to visit, we must first and foremost be a great place to live…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 of 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 – this is Responsible Tourism.

A destination is a place where people want to be. It is a special place, it is more than just bricks and mortar; it is a place whose greatest assets and experiences occupy people’s minds and hearts.

Cape Town is in the process of rebranding. We are developing a a multi-dimensional city brand that will provide a more balanced and holistic view of Cape Town incorporating business, education, the arts, creative industries, human capital and tourism.

Cape Town’s brand must reflect the real Cape Town story and capture the hearts and imaginations of a world bombarded with choice and homogeneity.

It is cities with the confidence to define themselves in the minds of their markets and own citizens that stand out from the rest.

Cities of the future will deliver something different; they are not defined by their size alone but by their ability to capture the imagination and define themselves as being the best at something.
We are committed to be defined by our Responsible Tourism offering.

The recent FIFA World Cup also assisted Cape Town in furthering our plans towards becoming a benchmark sustainable, responsible City. The Green Goal Programme was a series of actions taken by the City of Cape Town to ensure that the impact of the influx of 2010 visitors was correctly managed. To this end, a large street waste recycling project was implemented and continues today, with separated waste street bins. This programme has just won the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Sport and Environment Award after being nominated by FIFA in its capacity as a sporting federation affiliated with the IOC.

Low carbon emission public transport, green spaces and low energy solutions are all being given top priority by the City and its tourism and business stakeholders.

If Cape Town is to successfully continue to grow its tourism sector towards job creation and skills development, it must also protect the very thing that has created tourism demand; the environment and our local communities.

Sustainable practice and responsible tourism govern all our marketing strategies.

Responsible tourism should be the very essence of our product offering and not a stand-alone category of experiences or a campaign.

Although the tourism landscape is changing with many travellers becoming more and more mindful of the impact their travels have on the lands they visit in the short – and the long term, Responsible Tourism is still considered niche and not the norm.

The reality remains that price, distance; weather and quality of experience are still the most important factors when considering a holiday. Ethical, responsible and environmental issues are becoming increasingly important when ultimately choosing the next destination or experience, but the point made by many customers is that they want a holiday and a great experience; they do not want to be taken on a guilt-trip.

Research confirms that a lot of customers’ feedback and behaviour in terms of responsible tourism are still aspirational and very few are prepared to pay more for a more responsible holiday experience.

Green washing is also a growing concern with many businesses and destinations passing themselves off as responsible at face value in order to charge more and capitalise on new travel trends.

Cities and their respective marketing agencies have our work cut out for us to ensure that we market our responsible tourism offering in a more compelling and attractive manner.

Value remains critically important. There is an opportunity to develop a wider range of tourism experiences and extend reach of economic benefits from tourism.

We have come a long way, but our journey towards a responsible destination has only begun.

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