Three Sided Ecotourism
The noise from the undergrowth was intense and loud, from all kinds of bugs, happily beavering away in the August sunshine. The great herds of wildebeest stretched out before us, undisturbed by our visit.
As we walked around the designated lunching spot, above the shores of the vast Lake Manyara, Tanzania, a few years back, we could easily and relatively justifiably tell ourselves that this, truly, was Ecotourism.
We were conscientious tourists, eating only our packed lunch free from excess packaging, leaving no litter, making no unnecessary noise, resisting the urge to poke sticks into the colossal termite mounds. We overnighted in tents, put up for our visit and taken away with us. They were in designated camping areas close to, but not within the national parks. After our departure, we were satisfied that there remained not a trace of our passage.
Our guide and cook were both locals, from Arusha and working for an indigenous tour company based in the sprawling town under conical Mount Meru, one of Africa’s highest mountains.
Indeed, we had specifically decided not to use any foreign tour operators, in order to see our money spent directly in the local economy. We flew into Nairobi, Kenya, without even our first night’s accommodation booked. All we had was a return airfare, which we had even managed to book with Kenya Airways.
Were we Ecotourists ? To a degree, certainly. However, as the saying goes, there are precious few true deep-green tourists. We certainly didn’t shower too often, we didn’t throw litter and we didn’t waste electricity or other scarce resources. We certainly respected the locals and their customs and, indeed, we sampled as much of it as we could. We drank in local bars and ate in local eateries. We avoided the trappings of western culture and ‘imperial’ legacies.
In Nungwi, northern Zanzibar, however, something went askew. Arriving at a beautifully appointed and bustling office for scuba diving and snorkelling, we booked our day trip to an atoll off the east coast of the island. Between the island office, the people kitting us out and the guides on the actual boat trip and dive, we encountered not a single Zanzibari or Tanzanian. To our great disappointment, all the personnel were white South Africans. Having spent our Shillings diligently around Arusha and Dar, were we now seeing our holiday cash transferred to some bank account in Cape Town ?
There must be three sides to Ecotourism, not just the obvious one.
First, of course, there is the notion of conservation and sustainability, incorporating the landscape, flora and fauna of the visited area. This is the one we all pat ourselves on the back for protecting, through simple steps, such as water conservation, non-usage of chemical detergents, minimal impact on environments and local biodiversity, not taking souvenir samples of rare flora, not throwing litter, etc. Our safari tours stuck to the designated tracks, never deviating from the prescribed routes. We never descended from the vehicle in the wrong places. We did pretty well.
But watch out. There is the second area of preservation of and respect for the traditions and customs of indigenous populations – the social sustainability pillar. What do we, as tourists, do to the culture of the visited area ? We often see European sports jerseys adorned by local guides and shop workers in Africa. While this is relatively superficial, nevertheless, it scratches the surface of the impact tourists have on the socio-cultural norms of the host community. Nor did we do anything ‘wrong’ here.
Thirdly, Ecotourism requires that the local community be empowered economically. This is where we know we fell down on Zanzibar. Yes, we remained conscious of our impact upon the marine environment we were observing while diving. Yes, we appreciated that the boat transporting us out to the reef was small in size and passenger capacity, with a weak engine and limited environmental impact. But where was the economic benefit to the local islanders ? I don’t believe our diving trip sustained the livelihoods of any locals, at least not directly.
Look out for tourism offers that are sound environmentally, culturally and economically, with the local population firmly at the heart of the offer and in control. Let’s not fall into the trap of believing Ecotourism is all about us and our well-being and self-congratulation. It must also be about the families and communities who welcome us in.