Green credentials

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2017 has been declared the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by the United Nations. Graham Boynton reports on what this means for Africa

Google ‘Sustainable Tourism Africa’ and you come up with 5,220,000 results. It’s big news and it’s big business. And now that the UN has declared 2017 as the Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, it just got a whole lot bigger. The trick for both the industry and the travelling public is to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff, and that isn’t easy, even for those who know their way around the subject.

In fact, over the past 10 years Africa, probably more than anywhere else in the world, has embraced sustainable tourism. A decade ago, tourism was second only to mining as the continent’s most extractive industry. Now, country after country has embraced eco-friendly practices and there is evidence everywhere of reform.

In the remote areas, the safari business has undergone a quantum shift, with Botswana leading the way. When Great Plains Conservation built their luxury camp Zarafa in 2006 it was the first all solar-powered safari camp in the country. Today, it is illegal to build and run a safari camp in Botswana on generator power; and that country has become a role model. With the price of solar power falling from US$7 per watt when Zarafa was built to 70 cents per watt today, there is also pure economic incentive for every other camp on the continent to follow Botswana’s example.

Another key indicator of sustainable practices in the safari business is community benefits, and this is the most difficult one to measure even for insiders, so for the travelling public it is nigh impossible. Rural villages endure significant hardships living alongside wild animals and, if they are to be expected to participate in the protection of endangered species, they deserve financial rewards both from photographic tourism and, more controversially, from trophy hunting in countries where it is legal, such as Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Everyone pays lip service to community benefits but there are few examples of it actually working — Garth Owen-Smith in Namibia and Clive Stockil in Zimbabwe are two that are noticeably working with local communities.

Travellers are slowly coming around to sustainability, but when booking, most consumers will not ask for more ecological options. For the rest, it is a bit of a mixed bag. Hotels are very slowly joining the party — a recent survey conducted by booking.com of 5700 hotels revealed that only 25 per cent reported ‘green’ practices in place.

And while 191 countries reached ‘a landmark agreement’ late last year in Montreal ‘to help aviation achieve carbon neutral growth starting in 2021’, the number of international travellers has doubled in the past 20 years and aircraft are burning five million barrels of oil a day. By 2050, it is estimated that aviation fuel will contribute 22 per cent of all global carbon emissions.

As Colin Bell, founder of Wilderness Safaris, Great Plains Conservation and recently Natural Selection, says, “For the most part, sustainable tourism is a whole lot of greenwashing, so maybe this is the year we can start holding the tourism industry accountable and measure its green credentials.”

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Graham Boynton has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair, Esquire and Condé Nast Traveller, and was the travel editor of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph between 1998 and 2012. A regular visitor to Africa, where he grew up, his current consultancies include work as media director for the African Travel & Tourism Association (Atta). The views expressed in this column are his own.

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