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South Africa is ideally placed to reap the many rewards of conscious travel – here’s how

By Nick Dickson

Conscious travel is here. Like every other sector, tourism exerts an inevitable effect on the environments, resources and communities in which it depends. As the world works to combat climate change and focuses on greater social awareness, tourism bodies, industry players and travellers are striving to ensure that the industry’s impact is as positive and sustainable as possible. South Africa is poised to respond to this shift in several exciting ways.

The industry places demands on sites of natural, historic and cultural importance, and requires infrastructure, food and entertainment facilities. Tourism has an influence on, and a responsibility towards, the communities of which it is a part.

Tourism is also a carbon-intensive industry. Its carbon footprint currently accounts for an estimated 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions — a figure that is forecast to grow annually by 4% if measures aren’t put in place to reduce this impact. Which is why conscious travel is becoming increasingly important. While it’s impossible to do away with transport, tourists can reduce the impact they have on the destinations they travel to by being more considerate about the accommodation they choose and the activities they participate in.

Travellers are becoming more informed about the impacts of their journeys, leading to a growing demand for eco-friendly and socially conscious accommodation and experiences.

In a country as large, beautiful and diverse as South Africa, where tourism has the potential to affect some of the country’s most remote regions and communities, conscious travel has an important role to play. If we leverage it well, we may be able to use it to better care for the environment, to improve the lives and livelihoods of local communities, to boost local and national economies, and to create long-lasting change.

Conscious tourism in practice

South Africa already has a reputation for prioritising sustainability in tourism. Lonely Planet recently listed the country as a top 10 sustainable destination for 2024, and the 2024 World Economic Forum Travel & Tourism Development Index ranked it highly in terms of natural and non-leisure resources, and socio-economic impact.

It’s obvious that South Africa’s biodiversity and natural beauty is one of its biggest selling points, and it’s in the best interest of tourism providers to protect the many pristine and unspoilt areas that the country offers. It should be seen as a symbiotic opportunity: the tourism industry benefits from the many beautiful landscapes and authentic cultural experiences that so many tourists seek, while at the same time tourism providers should prioritise protecting the environment and the communities in which they operate.

And there are many existing initiatives that encourage sustainable and conscious tourism. Attractions and hotels that are giving back to their local communities — by nurturing a passion for conservation, supporting NGOs that care for orphans and vulnerable children, and mentoring young people and helping them succeed — are placing South Africa on the conscious tourism map. The country’s marine conservation efforts, as well as its farm stays, local ecotourism, and ethical township tourism are also helping to entrench this view.

As interest in environmental and community-based tourism grows, South African hospitality and tourism operators are further encouraged to maintain unspoilt areas and to preserve and protect wildlife — both of which South Africa has in abundance. They also have the opportunity to work with communities that were previously excluded from the tourism value chain in authentic and meaningful ways. 

Partnerships with entrepreneurs, small businesses, community forums, and grassroots organisations are critical here. By engaging directly with the people whose lives, livelihoods and environments are directly affected by their efforts, tourism operators can create interventions that really make a difference. First and foremost, to their environments and communities, and secondly, to the tourists wanting to travel responsibly. 

Fortunately, in a country like South Africa, where these groups are fundamentally woven into the country’s socio-economic fabric, forming these sorts of partnerships is both easy and welcomed.

Looking ahead

There is, of course, always room for growth. As the world and the country look to a future fraught with environmental, social, political and economic challenges, the need for sustainable tourism is only likely to continue. Hospitality and tourism operators therefore need to ask whether they are putting their efforts into the right areas, whether their interventions are meaningful, and what more can be done.

By prioritising purpose over profit, the tourism industry in South Africa is likely not only to continue to draw tourists from across the world, but also contribute ethically and sustainably to the land and its people. 

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