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Tanzania: can the country's booming eco-tourism sector ever be truly green?

Thembi Mutch

18th January, 2011

From local participation to wildlife conservation, Tanzania’s green tourism projects show how responsible travellers and tour operators can improve lives and ecosystems - but there's still much to do, reports Thembi Mutch

Tourist trips to developing countries is increasing by six per cent per year. Twenty per cent of these new tourists go to Africa, with Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania scooping up the majority. So what’s driving the trend? The answer is eco-tourism.

Ecotourism appeared as early as the 1960’s in Kenya, when hunters in search of game flocked to the savannas and forests, providing an economic reason for conservation. Since then, eco-tourism  - happily minus hunting - has become the fastest growing sub-sector of the tourist industry. With an annual growth rate of between 10 and 15 per cent worldwide, it’s no wonder that the travel industry regards it as a sort of wonder pill. But what exactly is eco-tourism and is it really as green as it’s supposed to be? 

Working with locals

Some see eco-tourism as a marketing ploy. Others regard it as a genuine effort to imaginatively dispose of waste, employ and train local people, preserve the environment and support local communities. Obviously prominent sprinklers on the lawns of some of the big hotels in Dar-Es-Salaam are a bit of a giveaway, as are daily deliveries of imported strawberries and foie gras to luxury South African boltholes.

Ironically, it is often the smaller, independent lodges who are best at involving local communities in macro tourist initiatives but they are also the ones who find it most difficult: long-term training, secure employment and monitoring whether profits really are ploughed back into their surrounding villages is expensive and labour intensive.

Rob Barbour, of Afrika Afrika, runs four eco-camps in Tanzania. He’s one of a handful of travel operators here who uses his imagination, thinking broadly, laterally and holistically. Uniquely he employs a trained, local community co-ordinator and the salaries he pays are higher than normal. His challenges include involving locals in the development of the camps, reducing poaching with snares and encouraging work such as beekeeping. For him, eco-tourism has to include secure employment.

He says: ‘Promotion of ethical working practices has to come from within.  It has to come from the top. It has to be done with communities in mind. Involving local communities is not a difficult thing to do. You have to build trust and the best way to do that is to always deliver on the things you say you are going to deliver on with no exceptions. Always keep the communication channels open to the community - tell them your issues and problems and ask them to do the same.’

At the Manyara Ranch Conservancy in North Tanzania, eight years of hard negotiation have resulted in a quiet revolution: for the first time land is owned co-operatively by the Masai tribes and leased to investors through the Tanzania Land Conservation Trust (TLCT). The high end permanent luxury camp brings much needed wealth to this formerly neglected area, and locals have a say in the direction of the business through the TLCT; all without compromising the camp’s high standards.

This model has been adopted by the Mkuru Camel Camp close to Mount Meru; another Masai-run tourist initiative, overseen by NGO, Oikos East Africa. In Tarangire, tourists looking at the famous Wildebeest Migrations have Dorobo Tours to thank in part for their experience. Their tireless work over the last 25 years has helped to conserve both the wildebeest and the grazing land they rely on via their hard work with local communities.

Chris and Nani Schmelling in Lake Eyasi, North West Tanzania, run one of the most radical and effective lodges in the country: Kisima Ngeda. The Schmellings work with the Hadzabe, a diminishing tribe of hunter-gatherers who eschew all forms of hierarchy, conflict and material possessions. While their disdain for materialism, mobility and flexibility can be inspiring for tourists, what is particularly impressive is the way the Hadzabe (and the neighbouring Datoga tribe) have gotten involved in the marketing and managing of their own lives as a tourist commodity.

A day out hunting with them is not a trip to the zoo: there are no manufactured ‘tribal’ dances or ogling at poverty. It is a fast, dirty, chaotic and exciting foray into the bush, on foot, with a bow and arrow. ‘I’m surprised by how few tourists actually ask about corporate social responsibility,’ says Chris. ‘We tend to raise it, but we don’t want to just look like we are just promoting the good we do.’

Conserving wildlife

Karlyn Langjahr, manager of the Chumbe Island Coral Park, is thoughtful about the challenges of working round the problems posed by tourism in Africa. ‘Our challenge is the Zanzibar government who would prefer a large concrete resort, as this would levy more taxes on the tourists who visit. We prefer to work small, to train up locals (including fishermen), to include local schoolchildren and to work round the fact that a Muslim population here isn’t happy to serve alcohol or massage tourists: we are working with two completely different cultures. It’s an exciting challenge to reduce the green footprint, educate fishermen about marine life and corals while acknowledging they must fish to survive and that tourists pay to snorkel and sunbathe.’

Pemba is another small, Muslim island close to Zanzibar and is home to an idyllic bio-diverse marine environment. Matthew Saus is the CEO of a group of Swedish companies, including Resort Investors AB, which owns the Manta Resort, one of the few hotels on Pemba. It is a high-end operation, catering for honeymooners, divers and families. Matt and his team of Pembans and Zanzibaris work within the constraints of an extremely conservative, under-developed semi-feudal society, bringing agricultural knowledge, marine understanding, training  and education, and most importantly a sense of inclusion for the elders and villagers.

The assistant manager, Farid, is proud to have been at the lodge for over four years. ‘I am Pemban and proud of it. We are a family here: you don’t choose Pemba - it chooses you. We embrace tourism, we want it, but it’s important we take decisions and are consulted - we don’t want beaches of naked Italians.’ Crucially Farid’s salary supports many family members, and gives him the chance to develop vital leisure industry skills, as well as allowing him the time to work on his book; a historical novel about his grandfather. Eco-tourism creates interesting ripples.

For everyone involved in tourism in Africa, recycling and waste management is still an area that needs work. Active, structured encouragement of villagers collecting and reusing glass and plastic is a good example of how this could be done. Improving waste management in their programmes and blazing a trail for others to follow are African Adventures, run by Ake Lindstrom, and Hoopoe Safaris. African Adventures always take a ‘spare’ porter with them on tours up Kilimanjaro to collect rubbish.

They were the first company in Tanzania to offset their carbon footprint with local initiatives and both organisations helped to create the Kilimanjaro Porters Association, which maintains health and safety measures and fair employment conditions for those who work as porters. Like Chumbe Island, Hoopoe won the Condé Nast Eco-tourism award for its investment in training. Both believe that the key to sustainable travel is to approach eco-tourism from a human, not mechanical perspective.

‘People are eco-tourism,’ says Chris. The drivers, safari guides and so on - they are the ambassadors for tourism here in Tanzania and they need to be included, given decent accommodation with their guests, and lunchboxes. Overall, we need an East Africa wide system of accreditation similar to the one run by Fair Trade to ensure eco-tourism is more than just talk.’

With thanks to Frank Castro, Jo Anderson, Marc Baker, Mzee Christopher Ole Memantoki, Chris Schmelling, Rob Barbour and George Mavroudis

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