AS A STIMULUS FOR SUSTAINABLE TOURISM DEVELOPMENT IN
The United Nations designated the year 2002 as the International Year of Eco-Tourism. The overall intent was to focus special attention to the sustainable uses of natural resources, which are highly endangered and on the verge of total depletion in many regions of the world. While the term "eco-tourism" is not new to the travel and tourism industry of Africa, it has been primarily used as a marketing tool and real examples of eco-tourism were not readily known. In fact, many tour operators interpret eco-tourism to mean adventure activities in designated areas while ignoring essential environmental and social considerations. The United Nation's goal, in collaboration with the World Tourism Organization (WTO), was to promote eco-tourism around the world by improving the image of the sector and recognizing the contribution of eco-tourism to conservation and sustainable development. To achieve this goal requires however the collaboration of all stakeholders: Regional Tourism Offices, Government Offices, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), private investors, tour operators, travel professionals, and most importantly, the local people within these eco-tourism communities.
Highlights of the World Eco-Tourism Summit, which was hosted May 19-22, 2002 in Quebec City, Canada by Tourism Quebec and the Canadian Tourism Commission attracted over 1,000 participants from public, private and non-governmental sectors of 132 countries. During the Summit, eco-tourism experts and representatives from various institutions submitted more than seventy study papers and about one-hundred speakers made presentations. Significant outcomes from the Summit included the following:
(a) acknowledgement that eco-tourism has significant and complex social, economic and environmental implications;
(b) emphasis on the fact that eco-tourism should contribute to make the overall tourism industry more sustainable, by increasing economic benefits for host communities, actively contributing to the conservation of natural resources and the cultural integrity of host communities;
(c) desire to increase the overall awareness of travelers toward the conservation of natural and cultural heritage;
(d) recognition that cultural diversity is highly associated with natural areas, particularly because of the historical presence of local communities, of which many have maintained their traditional knowledge, uses and practices, many of which have proven to be sustainable over the centuries;
(e) affirmation that different forms of tourism, especially eco-tourism, if managed in sustainable manner can represent a valuable economic opportunity for local populations and their respective cultures as well as the conservation and sustainable use of nature for future generations;
(f) emphasis that at the same time, wherever and whenever tourism in natural and rural environments are not properly planned, developed and managed, it contributes to the deterioration of natural landscapes, threatens wildlife and biodiversity, poor water quality, poverty, displacement of indigenous and local communities, and the ongoing erosion of cultural traditions;
(g) acknowledgment that eco-tourism must recognize and respect the land rights of indigenous and local communities, including their protected, sensitive and sacred sites; and
(h) stresses that in order to achieve equitable social, economic and environmental benefits from eco-tourism and other forms of tourism in natural areas, and to minimize or avoid potential negative impacts, participative planning mechanisms are required that will allow local and indigenous communities, in a transparent way, to define and regulate the use of their areas at the local level, including the right to opt out of tourism development.
When we think of sustainability or sustainable development in Africa many of us think of wildlife only. However, according to the United Nations, sustainable development is more accurately defined as "Development which meets the requirements of the present generation without endangering the requirements of the future generation". This requires development without overexploiting natural resources and without destroying the basis of existence. The overall goal must be to make growth possible in the mid-and-long term without depleting or destroying natural resources. Since the end of the 1970s, the concept of "soft tourism" or "eco-tourism" has focused attention on the detrimental effects of travel. The idea of this type of tourism particularly condemned the kind of tourism development which was too narrowly focused on the economic benefits.
In its place, it demanded a reasonable balance between economic efficiency, optimum satisfaction of tourist needs and a preservation of nature and the environment as well as the cultural and social structure of the indigenous population. By the early 1990s, the WTO had adopted the following definition of sustainable tourism as "Sustainable tourism development that meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future. It is envisaged as leading to management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support systems".
Unfortunately, there exist no clearly defined universal definition of eco-tourism and this lack of a firm definition has significantly impeded the progress that was hoped for. In many cases, African countries abuse and misuse the concept of eco-tourism in order to attract nature enthusiasts and/or to increase revenues from their tourist attractions. These marketing schemes have been used to mean environmentally-friendly tourism, low-impact tourism, or green tourism amongst other euphemisms. However, in reality, such tour programs do not give proper care to the sustainable use of the environment and in most cases contribute to the detriment of the environment. Fortunately, as African countries become more aware of the true values of eco-tourism and as travelers become more aware of eco-tourism as it is meant to be experienced, the number of eco-tourism sites in Africa where the principles of sustainability are strictly adhered to will increase.
Moreover, the concept of sustainable tourism should not be confused with eco-tourism because they are not synonymous. The WTO has consistently argued that all forms of tourism activities, be they geared to holidays, business, conferences, congresses or symposiums, health, adventure or eco-tourism itself, ought to be made sustainable. This means that the planning and development of eco-tourism's infrastructure, its subsequent operation and also its marketing campaign should focus on environmental, social, cultural and economic sustainability criteria, as to ensure that neither the natural environment nor the socio-cultural fabric of the host communities will be impaired by the arrival of tourists. On the contrary, local communities should benefit from tourism, both economically and culturally.
For eco-tourism, sustainability is a much stronger imperative than for other forms of tourism. Yet, as it is seen in any other form of tourism on the African Continent, unsustainable eco-tourism is practiced in many regions and countries, putting at great risk the survival of the natural environment that is the very foundation of the eco-tourism business, and more seriously, detracting from and even discrediting this activity. Generally speaking, the eco-tourism industry can be seen as a major burden pressing down on the protected or conserved areas and the local communities that live adjacent to them.
The aspiration of eco-tourism is to find a means of securing a sustainable yield for conservation from the tourists and the tourism industry for which those protected or conserved areas are major attractions. For the local communities around them, those attractions are often an important economic resource since, most people living in and around the natural resources are poor. We can tell or instruct these people to protect their natural heritages, but we cannot stop them from their "acts of destruction" unless reasonably acceptable alternatives are created, since in most cases, destruction is usually committed for the sake of their survival.
Tourism relies primarily on natural environments, and a large proportion of tourists show interest in nature as their major choice in a travel destination. Recent trends show that almost 15% of all tourists are exclusively traveling to natural areas while at least 50-60% of other visitors browse on it. However, eco-tourism as a niche market, which attracts educated travelers who want to conserve &endash; and not destroy &endash; the places that they visit, according to the International Tourism Society, comprises only about 10% of the international travel market. Eco-tourism products are also highly specialized and location specific because the need to enjoy the eco-tourism experience varies according to country, culture and eco-system. This requires the existence and conservation of intact eco-systems, where people want to experience recreation, adventures, and other outdoor activities. The main attractions for this type of "nature" eco-tourism are landscape scenery and the interesting flora and fauna which can best be seen in protected and wilderness areas. Forest, savannahs, wetlands, coastal areas and mountains are all of paramount importance to eco-tourists.
However, successful management in eco-tourism sites can only be achieved when there is a reasonable degree of cooperation with the local population. At least 20-30% of the income generated from the area should be given to conservation activities and to the local communities. Furthermore, employment for the local population should be provided (i.e. &endash; attendants, drivers, field guides, guards, etcetera), with consideration also for additional opportunities in the off-season. Experience shows, that no eco-tourism activity can be successful without the participatory management and revenue sharing of the local community. Therefore, tourists, tour operators, national and regional authorities and local people must all work closely together in a well-coordinated manner, since conservation and tourism need a symbiotic relationship.
The role of eco-tourism in Africa as an economic opportunity for the government, private sector and local communities is mainly focused in the areas of accommodations, catering and transport services. In order to maximize the economic and social benefits of eco-tourism, careful attention should be given not only to potential earnings from eco-tourism, but also to the way in which those earnings are redistributed through the national economy and thereby serving to ensure sustainable development through the encouragement of the local community in managing their own resources. The development and promotion of small and medium-sized eco-tourism enterprises is therefore, highly important if eco-tourism is expected to contribute to the designed social and economic goals of any African country. Moreover, the role of the small and medium-sized eco-tourism industry is not only complimentary but also an alternative to larger scale operations in achieving a balance within the tourism industry. Eco-tourism can also serve as an effective tool in encouraging sustainable development.
The small and medium-sized enterprises find their places in a number of economic activities related to the eco-tourism industry of Africa in the following areas: (a) establishment of small eco-tourism centers, (b) operation of guest houses and small lodges, (c) provision of catering services, (d) organized tour guide services, (e) manufacturing and sale of souvenirs, (f) coordination of local transportation services, (g) arranging for cultural events, (h) sales of agricultural products, (i) sales of fish and poultry products, and (j) animal husbandry. In addition, small and medium-sized enterprises can partner with larger tourism enterprises to perform auxiliary services such as gardening, entertainment, souvenir sales, etcetera. The emergence of these tourism-related activities by small and medium-sized enterprises can allow for larger tourism enterprises to focus on the major activities that they generate their revenues from while creating cost effectiveness and greater customer satisfaction.
The benefits of Eco-Tourism have a wide range of social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits if it is encouraged and well-managed as follows:
Eco-Tourism can provide socio-cultural benefits which create employment opportunities for local communities. Eco-tourism centers can be owned and managed by domestic investors, hence, their role in creating local entrepreneurship and jobs is of paramount importance for a sustainable growth and development strategy. Artisan craft development or souvenir production or sales are one of the areas in eco-tourism which can have a significant contribution in preserving and reviving the vanishing craft tradition of indigenous people. In addition, cultural or historical objects such as icons and parchments are cultural heritages, and often they have priceless values. The reproduction of such cultural objects can definitely reduce illegal export of original objects, which is rampant nowadays. Consequently, the role of eco-tourism is significant in reducing the illegal export of cultural heritages.
Eco-Tourism can also provide environmental benefits if proper management are implemented, and serve as an important tool for sustainable development. Eco-tourism facilities are often established in natural areas such as national parks and protected areas and render a wide variety of services which can create job opportunities in the local community and thereby improving living standards. Such activities also have significant effects in the protection and conservation of the environment by enhancing the conservation of natural resources, since eco-tourism survives only in the protected and conserved areas. In addition, eco-tourism has the potential to create other sources of revenues for the local community in the eco-tourism areas and discourages more traditional activities such as agriculture, which is associated with deforestation, overgrazing, poaching, etcetera.
Eco-tourism generates economic benefits by creating low-investment cost and high rate of return which minimizes investment risks and therefore attracts investors and stimulates the economy in a more sustainable manner. Eco-tourism also offers excellent opportunities for earnings to re-circulate within the national economy, and the redistribution of earnings stimulates the national economy. This is because most inputs and resources are purchased locally, most earnings are spent locally, profits and salaries are not repatriated, and most importantly, profits are reinvested. Another advantage of eco-tourism is that it is not seriously affected by economic recession, while large-sized tourism enterprises are highly affected and take more time to recover.
Challenges for Eco-Tourism Development. Virtually all of the countries of Africa know the importance of the tourism industry and are undergoing measures to improve their eco-tourism attractions both in terms of quality and quantity. However, more attention is given to attracting large-scale tourism investments perhaps in the hopes of realizing better benefits from such enterprises. It might be appropriate to generalize, that the challenge lies in the priorities given in the tourism development programs of each African country. In addition, incentives for nurturing small and medium-sized enterprises, which are the predominate beneficiaries from eco-tourism in local communities are not included in the top list of the country's priority for an economic development agenda.
If properly developed and managed, eco-tourism has the means to alleviate poverty and generate new jobs. Small and medium-sized enterprises can also easily grow into large sized enterprises, provided they are supported by proper incentives and capacity building initiatives. However, investment incentives in the areas of land acquisition, tax holiday, and bank loans are not attractive and in most cases they do not exist at all. Moreover, most African countries depend on one or two export products, mainly agricultural or mineral products, and when demand for such products fall, the economy of the country is adversely affected. The critical need to diversify its export products is extremely vital to most African nations in order to survive market fluctuations since most products or services are export-oriented. However, far too often, the trade and industry ministry does not work in concert with the natural resources and tourism ministry to achieve mutually beneficial goals.
In conclusion, eco-tourism offers tremendous opportunities to preserve natural resources while at the same time creating economic alternatives for local communities in African countries. A long-term development strategy for eco-tourism, with due priority given to economic empowerment in local communities, should become a commitment of African governments. The introduction of attractive investment policies with the necessary incentives is another important step towards attracting and encouraging eco-tourism. The existence of good governance and efficient management of the tourism industry, free of benign neglect and unnecessary bureaucratic procedures are also vital areas to be resolved by all stakeholders.
Without a doubt, many African nations possess spectacular natural and man-made resources, which can be exploited for the improvement of their economic and social progress. All that it takes to do this is to have a vested interest, courage and determination for innovative ideas and sustainable development. In view of its comparative advantages, eco-tourism is an excellent alternative for rapid development in the promotion of any African nation's economy. The WTO has actively encouraged the various stakeholders to therefore consider eco-tourism development in order to create sustainable development, reduce poverty and create entrepreneurial opportunities in local communities on the African Continent.
About the author: David J. Saunders is the CEO of Venue International Professionals, Inc. (VIP) &endash; a full-service travel and tourism consulting firm based in the Washington Metropolitan Area that focus specifically on the Continent of Africa. In addition, he is the Director of Administration and Management Services of the Constituency for Africa (CFA) &endash; the premiere advocacy-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that focuses on the challenges affecting Africa. He is also a Member of the International Board of Directors of the Africa Travel Association (ATA) as well as a frequent writer of several trade publications to include Black Meetings and Tourism Magazine and the Africa Travel Magazine.