What makes Sustainable Tourism sustainable?


In 2017 the South Luangwa in Zambia was declared the world’s first ‘Sustainable National Park’ by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). But what does this mean, exactly? We asked Adrian Coley, a lodge operator in the Luangwa Valley, to give us the inside track on the impact of tourism in this important wildlife region.

More and more of us are thinking more sensitively about how we travel. Tourism marketing people have been doing all they can to catch our eyes with new ways to make us feel that we are travelling “the right way”. We have had ‘eco-tourism’, ‘green tourism’, ‘home stays’, ‘responsible tourism’ and ‘voluntourism’, to name but a few.

Now ‘sustainability’ is the latest buzzword. But what does that mean?

The UNWTO defines ‘sustainable tourism’ as: “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”

The South Luangwa was declared the world’s first Sustainable National Park for many reasons, but clearly the most important was the initiatives that involve local people in the wider industry of tourism. What makes tourism truly sustainable is the long-term impact it has on the local economy.

The slide below charts the results of a study commissioned by the Luangwa Safari Association and undertaken by the University of Florida to assess the financial impact of tourism activities in the South Luangwa National Park (SLNP).

This found that US$2.6 million of the $26.7 million local tourism economy was sales made by local businesses that, they themselves, attributed to being due to tourism. This is in a rural area where 20 years ago barely anyone even owned a bicycle.

It takes massive investment to set up a successful safari camp, but each of these safari businesses can support many small-scale entrepreneurs.

Although in the UNWTO’s definition above the host communities get a mention, they are the key to most of the things that precede them in that definition. When we in the industry talk about conservation, we try to stress the economics of conservation, and in particular the jobs it provides in the local communities.

The SLNP is about half the size of Wales. No one lives inside the National Park itself, but flanking it are the six Kunda Chiefdoms where about 70,000 people live. It is impossible for an industry to give direct benefits to all those people, which is what makes the economic impact of tourism so important.

In our area we employ local Zambians at all levels of our businesses: accountants, waiters, safari guides, mechanics, housekeepers and others. All these people spend their money in the local economy. This “trickles down” to other businesses who need to source supplies, build shops, fix vehicles and generally sustain their own livelihoods.

Lydia Zulu, Flatdogs Manager. Image credit Flatdogs Camp


There are about 15 safari companies here which generate the current estimated $27 million economy. Yet they operate only in a fraction of the 9000 sq km park (and almost none of the 5000 sq km of community land adjoining it).

Globally, tourism is growing faster than any other sector and has been for over a decade. We need to be able to accommodate this growing demand. In the SLNP, if we could extend the reach of tourism to more areas of the park and convince the communities to set aside more areas of community land for photographic tourism, the impact could be far greater. More investment, more training, more jobs and a larger economy.

It is important we help to support education in the communities we work in, and to ensure the supply of clean water, but those Corporate Social Responsibility projects (which most safari companies get involved in) are a form of aid, and are not in themselves what makes an industry sustainable. They are the benefits of a sustainable industry.

In the South Luangwa, tourism drives an economy that benefits many thousands of people. Because these people see the direct value of tourism, when more people are educated about the importance of natural resources, there is more support than ever for conservation. This is where it starts to look sustainable!

In 2010, Flatdogs Camp, Robin Pope Safaris, Kafunta River Lodge, Shenton Safaris and Croc Valley Camp set up a charity called Project Luangwa. To fund this and other CSR projects, nine safari operators voluntarily implemented the Luangwa Community and Conservation Fund (LCCF). Millions of dollars have since been raised through the LCCF bednight levy and generous guest donations to help Project Luangwa provide support to the education sector and Conservation South Luangwa (CSL).

Importantly, in doing so many jobs have been created and training given to builders, carpenters, painters, wildlife scouts and others.

Itself employing 85 people, CSL invests in human-animal conflict mitigation, working with communities to help them live happily alongside wildlife. These outreach programmes and events, stressing the importance of wildlife, impact education not only locally, but nationally. The annual 10km fun run is attended by football stars, government ministers, local dignitaries, chiefs and around 3000 local people.

As a by-product of its effort to train and employ wildlife vets, CSL also offers local people veterinary care for dogs and other animals, and sponsors the training of the vets who work there.

Chipembele Wildlife Education Trust, set up by two retired police officers from Thames Valley, now works in 17 schools in the area, reaching thousands of children. They offer overseas exchange trips for the most passionate and promising students to experience new cultures and visit wildlife reserves in other countries. They also sponsor some youngsters through college and have some graduates who are now spreading the word about conservation amongst their peers.

Image credit Chipembele Wildlife Education Trust


The Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP), a research programme based in four parks in Zambia studying all the large carnivores, has a graduate scheme which has successfully put three Zambians through Master’s degrees at the University of Montana. In fact, the senior ecologist at the Department of National Parks was himself a graduate from Montana funded by ZCP.

In 2019 Flatdogs Camp increased the LCCF contribution from each booking by 50 per cent in order to expand support to ZCP and pay the salaries for local forest guards employed by the Community Resource Board (CRB). Other lodges are doing the same with Chipembele WET, some are funding aerial support for ZCP/CSL, and most have projects with local schools to further education.

To safeguard our wilderness habitats for future generations, in 2014 a company called Biocarbon Partners (BCP) bid for an ambitious contract to protect 700,000 hectares of Luangwa forest, outside of the National Park.

BCP is a social enterprise that hopes to be able to provide long term assistance to communities in return for them agreeing to protect their forests. The only way to do this is to put a value on the standing forests, which compensates the communities for not turning them into charcoal, cutting them down to create new farm land, or both.

This value has to come from carbon credits, which were all the rage until the Kyoto Agreement fell apart. Now they are ‘products’ that companies voluntarily buy to offset their own carbon footprint, and the money earned from these sales goes towards community development. Flatdogs Camp, Time+Tide (Norman Carr Safaris) and Luambe Camp have committed to doing this and have become carbon neutral operations.

A single camp in the depths of a national park can be a sustainable enterprise, for sure, but to declare a whole national park and its surrounding areas as sustainable requires a combination of things to be put into practice at the same time.

We are proud of our work in the South Luangwa, and hope our success to date stimulates further support, ensuring the long-term, sustainable impact for the wider economy.

Adrian Coley is the co-owner of Flatdogs Camp.