Turning new leaves

South Africa has proven to the world that responsible tourism is possible

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Statistics of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) reveals that there were over 1.4 billion tourist arrivals in the world in 2018, with that number expected to rise.

Economically this may be a boon for many countries, but the fact remains that tourism contributes 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With the projected growth of tourism, the environmental impact is set to follow suit. That is, unless, the industry looks inward and places sustainability at the centre of its focus.

As one of the world’s largest industries, tourism and all its representative bodies around the world, have committed to investing in sustainability in what has become part of the new normal. UNWTO declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, pleading nations to commit to sustainability in the sector — marking the beginnings of new and irreplaceable way forward.

In the words of UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai, spoken at the World Tourism Day celebrations in Doha, Qatar, “The question is how we can enable the powerful global transformative force of tourism to contribute to make this world a better place and to advance sustainable development in all its five pillars: economic, social, environmental, cultural and peace.”

With the recent water crisis providing much needed perspective, South African Tourism (SAT) has taken up the challenge of ushering in a new era of responsible tourism. From water-conscious PR campaigns, to green exhibiting, to SMME development, our tourism sector is leading the charge for sustainable practices that the world should take note of.

For the past eight years, SAT has been partnered with the Event Greening Forum (EGF) on the biggest business travel trade show on the continent, Meetings Africa. This event has been shortlisted for the 2019 African Responsible Tourism Awards, which recognises African organisations that offer a shining example of how tourism can benefit local peopleand the environment.

The Meetings Africa 2019 Green Stand Awards seek to recognise exhibitors who go that extra ‘green’ mile to build and design stands that are environmentally and socially sustainable. The stands were judged against the EGF award criteria including design, materials, operations, transport, communication, beyond green and innovation. Exhibitors could participate in the competition by showcasing their stand at the exhibition, motivating why their stand was green.

This relationship was extended to the continent’s largest travel trade show, Africa’s Travel Indaba, where the Green Stand Awards was introduced for the first time. The partnership with the EGF drives ecological initiatives such as recycling at the event, provision of filtered tap water to cut down on the use of plastic water bottles, and the option to donate stand materials for re-use.

The big winners of the day were Classic Safari Africa (Platinum Pavilion Award) and Thompson’s Tourism (Platinum Award in the large stand category).

Classic Safari Africa CEO, Pauline Hawthorn, said the materials on their stand has been re-used for the last decade. Re-use and recycling of stand materials is one of the major criteria for the awards judges. “The tables in the stand are about 20 years old. They just needed a repaint.”

Despite the slight changes made to the materials, the company keeps to its branding values, using canvas to create the look of a tent and rustic wooden fencing to cordon off its area. “We still try to give it the look and feel of a safari,” says Hawthorn.

Classic Safari Africa, however, does not leave their sustainability values behind at Africa’s Travel Indaba. Its 37 camps around Africa are run with the environment in mind.. “A lot of our camps are responsible. Everything we do is sustainable,” says Hawthorn.

It is clear that SA, and its tourism sector, is not afraid of the ‘new normal’. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way South Africa’s tourism capital, Cape Town, responded to the infamous water crisis.

While this global issue is not exclusive to the Mother City, Cape Town, however, is showing cities around the world what it means to respond to water restrictions. So successful the city has been that UNWTO and the World Tourism Cities Federation (WTCF) recently selected Cape Town as one of 15 top global destinations to provide a case study that demonstrates the city’s global status and its potential to influence world travel according to both its popularity and its practices in operating under sustainable tourism conditions.

Already recognised as a leading climate-conscious green city, being consistently voted in as one of the world’s most sustainable cities, Cape Town cut its water usage in half from 1.2 billion litres a day in 2015 to just over 500 million litres at the beginning of 2018 — proving that tourism standards don’t have to drop with the water levels.

The city partnered with local and national tourism bodies to drive the message internationally, that the city remains open for business, and is ready to continue welcoming tourists.

In line with this, South African Tourism, in collaboration with the local industry, created a highly successful PR campaign and international roadshow, which created awareness of the importance of tourism to the South African economy, and highlighted innovations being implemented by the country’s tourism trade, such as the introduction of desalination plants within hotels, and water recycling systems employed in tourist attractions like the V&A Waterfront, and Robben Island.

As an example, and a proverbial drop in the bucket compared to collective efforts, The Twelve Apostles, Cape Town’s most luxurious 5-star accommodation, managed the seemingly impossible. From 2017 to 2018, the hotel managed to reduce water consumption by a staggering 42% by fitting shower heads with restrictors, converting fresh water hotel swimming pools to salt water, replacing napkins and placemats that need to be washed with biodegradable paper ones and reducing water usage in laundry facilities by 90% through innovative technologies.

In the end, and in environmentally and economically conscious times, it all comes down to responsibility, and tourism is no exception. The simple, yet highly impactful way the South African tourism trade is creating awareness around the responsible use of resources to grow a sustainable tourism economy. It is a future all industries need to strive towards and one that tourism in South Africa is helping to lead us all towards.

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