Responsible tourism in Africa

The issue of responsible tourism in Africa is not a simple one, but then it’s a complex topic wherever you place it on the globe. Africa has been blighted by negative press and stereotyping for decades – if not centuries – which has only served to highlight societal problems and has failed to showcase where the continent – and us travelers in support of it – are getting things right. Now, however, the tides are turning. As an African safari becomes more accessible and mainstream, travelers are also realising how valuable and interesting Africa’s diverse culture is, too.

African tourism has always battled with different concepts of culture – and its level of interest to tourists. Europe and Asia, for example, boast temples, museums, castles, cathedrals, impressive architecture – tangible qualities that are easy to see and therefore easy to market and photograph. The cultural attractions in Africa – cultural heritage, beliefs, storytelling, ancient knowledge, music, dance – are intangible, making them less easy to package and sell. What’s more, Africa’s cultural achievements have historically been dismissed by the West; for example, archaeologists studying the thousand-year-old ruins of Great Zimbabwe were under great pressure from colonial governments to declare they were built by non-Africans. Likewise, the Benin Bronzes were initially assumed to have been as a result of Europeans showing “primitive” Africans how to cast metal, but the techniques were developed simultaneously by indigenous people in West Africa. So, there has always been snobbery and a presumption that anything achieved in Africa has been given to them by the West. Not so. Africa is going through an economic boom; it is now pulling itself out of poverty by business, especially in terms of tourism, and not just by aid.

The recognition of Africa’s rich culture doesn’t just support its people; the future of wildlife and landscapes, too, is now looking brighter thanks to the creation of communal conservancies. These put responsible tourism back into the hands of local people – who were previously believed incompatible with conservation policies and protected areas – and have in some cases halted uncontrolled development in its money-motivated tracks.

People & culture

Conservancies: the key to a sustainable future?

Conservancies are areas of land in which the local communities take full responsibility for the conservation and general management of both their land and of the wildlife that live on it in order to generate an income independently from sustainable farming and tourism.

Namibia flies the African flag for the initial creation of conservancies, something you can read more about here, and the model is also now being used for community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) policies, which have been developed and implemented across southern Africa in countries including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa.

Less secure in the model, but making rapid strides in terms of conservancies is Kenya. Tourism has been an important part of Kenya’s recent history – creating vast national parks and game reserves, outlawing hunting, and contributing to the country’s GDP – and an important shift is already taking place in the way that Kenya’s land is managed and protected. Traditionally, land was set aside as a national park, or wildlife reserve (such as the Masai Mara,) and local communities were evicted from the land, which could no longer be used for hunting, grazing, fishing, or harvesting food or firewood. In wildlife terms, this was seen as a success – and in tourism terms too, because the wildlife that tourists had paid to come and see was now protected. But when people are evicted without compensation, recognition, or any way to benefit from the new enterprises that are taking place on what many would argue is rightfully their land, conflict – naturally – occurs. Poverty increases, there is a migration to the cities – meaning a loss of tribal culture – and, desperate for food and money, communities may turn to newly illegal activities such as poaching or logging. Some wildlife may be hunted for food, others to sell – and others are killed due to human-wildlife conflict, where animals such as elephants, lions or even chimpanzees are destroying crops and threatening families.

In recent years, though, conservancies have emerged - permitting the coexistence of local people and wildlife, and springing up across the country, particularly in the buffer zones surrounding the Masai Mara Game Reserve, where wildlife is plentiful. Each conservancy is created when a group of landowners comes together to collectively manage their small parcels of land as one bigger area and make decisions democratically. Land use agreements maintain limited grazing rights, and – crucially – the landowners can lease their land to safari companies, who can establish lodges or camps on the land with agreed visitor fees..

Africa’s continued ability to adapt to this shift – moving the emphasis from wildlife to people – will determine the impact that tourism has on its future sustainability.

What you can do
There are an increasing number of tourism projects across Africa that support conservancies, and local communities who participate in tourism have benefitted over the years as they are able to maintain their lands, support themselves and their status as landowners gives them greater power to resist their lands being bought out for construction, development, farming or mining, for example.

Badly managed tourism can be even more damaging than no tourism, however, so before booking a tour, ask some questions of your operator: How much involvement does the community have in the tours? How are they compensated? Does your guide speak the local language? Does tourism support community projects?

Above all, ensure that your visit is not a one-way experience. Ask your hosts questions – and invite them to ask you questions back. Interact, rather than just standing behind your camera. This is not only respectful to the community; it's also guaranteed to give you a much more memorable trip.

Tribal tourism: privilege or ploy?

The argument behind tribal tourism is one that is set to run. On the one hand, Kenya’s Maasai were once victims of “look and point” tours. Today, many Maasai are landowners, who rent out their land to tour companies. Any safari groups must be accompanied by Maasai guides, and the Maasai give concessions for lodges and camps to be built on their land. They don’t need to hold out their hands and ask for payment in exchange for photos, as they are earning money in more sustainable – and respectful – ways, as guides, and as landlords. In the same vein, Namibia’s Living Culture Museums are another great example of a tribal experience which doesn’t interrupt the daily life there and allows tribes to take control where interaction with tourists is concerned. They celebrate local culture and educate visitors – as well as encouraging traditions to be passed down to the next generation.

On the other hand, in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, there seems to be very little collaboration with the tribes (some tours here have been described as "human safaris") and little debate about what happens with regard to tourist flow. Home to more than a dozen tribes, the valley is now one of Ethiopia’s most divisive tourist “attractions”, but the phenomenal experience of meeting tribespeople in such a remote location is tainted – perhaps even ruined – by the perceived “spoiling” of their culture by tourism, the policy of paying for photos, and the lack of genuine interaction. Similarly, there are frequent reports of other tribes like the Hadzabe in Tanzania and Uganda’s Echuya Batwa being treated appallingly by tourism and distinctly taken advantage of – this is a continent-wide problem, rather than a few isolated cases.

Supporters of tourism argue that in some cases, tourism has actually encouraged tribes across Africa to maintain traditions that would otherwise have been lost. Body paint wins out over jeans and t-shirts, and customs have been passed down from parent to child – does it matter if this has happened for ancient, honourable reasons – or for modern, more devious ones?

The other argument is that some tribes, such as those of the Omo Valley, have now become tourism-dependent, with payment from tourists being their only reliable source of income. Withdrawing from the region could be disastrous for the communities who depend on this money to feed their families and to purchase seeds and cattle.

For Africa’s tribes to live how they want to live and not how they believe tourists want them to, it is imperative that local communities have a say in how tourism is conducted and how the income is shared. Otherwise, sadly, the only control they have is over the cost of a photograph – a control that, certainly in terms of Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, is already exercised rigorously.
What you can do
If you decide to visit an African tribe, find out as much as you can about how the tour is conducted. How many people will be in your tour group? How long will the visit to each community last? Is a local guide used for translation and negotiation? Have the visits been discussed with tribal elders? How are the tribes compensated? Any ethical operator will have guidelines and recommendations for their guests and will encourage them not to simply point cameras in people’s faces. Regardless of whether or not you are paying for it, viewing someone purely through a lens lacks respect, and only contributes to the image of tourists as walking ATMs.

In addition, lend your voice to those opposing land grabs, evictions and the eradication of tribal rights. Survival International gives a number of options, from petitions to donations and letters to politicians.

Development in Africa’s north: do growing crowds always mean gain?

It has been like the Arab Spring of tourism in Morocco and Tunisia over recent years – a huge influx of millions every year as hordes of vacationmakers are dropped in by budget airlines. All inclusive resorts are a massive contributing factor to the fast-paced development that’s been underway to keep up with the crowds and other destinations worldwide have crashed and burned after such rapid growth when the local population – the people who really need to benefit economically – are shut out of the expansion plans. But where creating an inequitable and unfair distribution of wealth is irresponsible, growing and developing to increase local incomes and improve education and career opportunities people, isn’t.

As it is now, with the influx of multinational, one-size-fits-all tourism, few local people are benefiting; neither the vacationmakers, nor the hosts. The streets and souks are more congested; the beaches are more polluted; land is becoming overpriced due to development potential; illegal activities more prolific; the natural resources such as water more depleted, and the local people more deflated – that’s some list. In Morocco, the political Arab Spring of 2011 included protests by local young people who were unhappy about unemployment, democracy and corruption. The King responded by launching a comprehensive program of reforms, granting greater human and social rights and creating a more open system of governance. Let’s hope this fairer, squarer approach filters through to tourism.
What you can do
We love Morocco. It is worlds apart from Europe, and yet so easy to get to from the UK – but with rapid development comes a price and that price is often a dilution of uniqueness. Of course an organic change in culture is inevitable, and responsible tourists can’t expect Moroccans to preserve and pickle their traditions and lifestyles just for their enjoyment – certainly when this development has the potential to break the poverty cycle for many people.

However, in our experience, when tourism is imposed by outside sources, local people are more likely to lose sight of their heritage, and get swamped by the generic tourism products that emanate from globalization. So, by supporting small, sustainable businesses, we can remind Moroccans that we tourists do value their heritage and culture, and that a wonderful vacation is as much about the experience and cultural exchange as it is about growing tourism numbers.

Wildlife & environment

Hunting: is it ever OK?

Although it is heartbreaking to contemplate that the animal you have just spotted, photographed and will remember forever, might then be hunted by humans, hunting is a big way of life in many African countries, and very often plays an important part in conservation strategies.

While we don't like the idea of hunting, at Responsible Travel we do understand that well-managed hunting can encourage the protection of large swathes of land that would otherwise be broken up by agriculture, construction – or even more damaging activities such as mining. Interrupting migration routes or animals’ access to grazing land or water can have a catastrophic effect, even if only a small segment of land is fenced off. However, for hunting to be truly beneficial there must be strictly enforced quotas; quotas that have been recommended by independent experts, and not by the reserve owners or tour operators themselves and are in place to ensure viable populations. There must also be considerable reinvestment in community projects and local conservation.

Hunting is an important source of conservation income in many African safari destinations – including South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia – and will continue as long as this money is needed. So just be prepared for the fact that conservation and killing do often go hand in hand, and if you want to avoid this, choose your organisation carefully.

See articles in National Geographic and The Guardian for more information.

Canned hunting’ is another story entirely. Lions are bred and raised on farms – then released into a private hunting reserve to be shot by wealthy hunters. “Shooting fish in a barrel” would be an apt comparison; with nowhere to escape to, a kill is guaranteed. Some 7,000 lions live on canned hunting farms – more than double the number from ten years ago. Even more worryingly for travelers, some farms advertise for animal-loving volunteers to come and look after the cubs – feeding and playing with them – under the impression that these creatures will one day be released into the wild. Not so. Ironically, the volunteers end up cuddling the inherent mistrust of humans out of the cubs – so that once they are transferred to the hunting reserve, they are even easier to shoot. Horrific.
What you can do

Jeremy Smith, co-author of Clean Breaks by Rough Guides and founder of the Fair Game tourism initiative – supporting efforts to address the poaching crisis threatening much of our most endangered wildlife: “Real walking safaris in the bush with an armed guide to protect you in the wilds are an incredible experience. But stay clear of any trips that offer the opportunity to walk with and pet animals in small, private locations where there are semi-domesticated lions or other animals wandering around. You can even walk with a tiger, which isn't native to Africa! Some of these organisations say they are aiding conservation through research, but their claims are mostly dubious. Most of all though, it promotes the wrong relationship between us and wild animals.”

Anne Smellie is a Wildlife Volunteering Expert with our Supplier Oyster Worldwide. She shares her tips on choosing the right volunteer placement, and avoiding canned hunting reserves: “Do your research. There are lots of issues with wildlife volunteering and it's so important to establish that you're going somewhere that volunteers are actually needed, where it's actually benefitting the animals and not just a money spinner. You must ask questions about the purpose of the park where you're planning on volunteering. Why are volunteers needed? Is this a job that local people could be paid to do? It's so important. There are so many heartbroken volunteers who haven't been doing what they thought they were there for. Ask your operator if they have visited the project, and what their experience was. Ask to speak to other volunteers that have taken part. The projects that are valuable will be the ones who are getting the tour operators down to experience it – they'll be happy to promote what they're doing.”

Responsible tourism tips

Water is extremely scarce in many African countries; take short showers rather than baths, reuse towels, and turn off taps when brushing your teeth. Report any leaks to staff as soon as possible. Toilets use a huge amount of water too – you don't have to flush every time. We recommend using biodegradable toiletries and laundry detergents, especially when camping – limited water supplies will quickly become contaminated. It’s natural to want to get closer to wildlife – but this will distress them. Never ask your guide to leave the trails or drive after wildlife, and be sure to obey all rules in the reserves. Fires start fast and burn hard in the desert; never drop cigarette butts or matches on the ground, be extremely careful when building fires, and keep water to hand to extinguish sparks and embers. It is illegal to take elephant ivory, leather and tusk products, rhino horn products and cat furs into the UK and many other countries. They will be confiscated at your place of exit or entry and you could face legal proceedings. Think before you take pictures. It’s easy to get snap-happy when presented with Africa’s incredible savannahs and tribes, but it’s important to remember that this may be your trip of a lifetime, but it’s their reality, so introduce yourself to the locals and ask permission. Whenever possible, it is good idea to ask for a postal address and follow through by sending photographs back to local families. Never use flash photography with wildlife. Many parts of Africa are very conservative. Dress modestly wherever you travel – women in particular – this means long trousers and skirts, covered shoulders and midriffs. And when visiting religious sites, women are advised to cover their heads, as Eskinder Hailu from our leading Ethiopia supplier, Highway Tours, explains: “When you go to the churches it’s respectful to cover your head with some cloth. It’s not mandatory, it’s not a mosque, but it helps. Just this week one of my clients was wearing a hat and she thought it was considered as a head cover, but I asked her to take it off.” Some sites may also require you to remove your shoes. Slum tours are offered in Nairobi’s Kebira slum. This is an overpopulated, lawless district with hundreds of thousands of people living in squalid conditions – surrounded by hazards such as open sewers. While the benefits of these tours is questionable, tourists are putting themselves in a dangerous position – as well as exploiting local residents who may resent being stared at or photographed while going about their daily life. Conversely, there are a number of well-run township tours in South Africa and Namibia, operated by local people who live– or grew up – there. When choosing a tour, find out about the tour company or guide’s connection with the area, and ensure it doesn’t just involve traveling through in a vehicle. Any good tour will involve meeting local people, eating or drinking in local establishments, learning about the different cultures that live here – and about the political history that led to the foundation of the townships. Africa can be a relatively costly place to travel in – but even the most popular destinations, including Tanzania and Kenya – are amongst the world’s poorest nations. Do your bit by tipping your local guides, drivers, cooks and hotel staff – discuss an appropriate amount with your tour operator before you depart, and come prepared with cash. Pooling tips – if you are traveling in a group – is recommended as a hassle free way to tip. Many African tours include a visit to a local school. These can be fascinating for visitors and great photo opportunities – but do ask questions of your operator. Tourists trampling through a classroom daily to take photos with kids is disruptive to their education, and can do more harm than help. Additionally, any gifts should be given to the teachers rather than the children, who may start to see foreigners as a source of freebies, encouraging begging and bad perceptions. Haggling is part of the game across Africa – and especially in northern countries such as Morocco and Egypt, so embrace it and join the fun. Trust your instincts and remember that most negotiations are just an economic exchange, not a way to trick you. Traveling with a local guide helps, as they can help you learn the tricks. In general, you can offer half the price, or 75 percent for expensive items and then take it from there! If you don’t speak the local language, write down the agreed price, just to be clear. Trekking responsibly in the Sahara and Atlas Mountains is a given, leaving no trace, telling people where you are going, being accompanied by a guide when necessary, and being prepared with safety and medical kits, food and water. You can see our 2 Minute Walking Vacation Guide for more tips on this. Trekking up Kilimanjaro means being responsible not just to yourself – but to your porters. Though there are guidelines in place regarding minimum pay, how much they can carry etc, these are often flagrantly ignored, so it’s up to you to keep an eye out for bad practices – and to ensure you book through a responsible operator, such as those on our site. Read more about porters’ rights in our Kilimanjaro guide. When booking a safari searching, look for companies that really do connect with communities. It is easy for them to greenwash, their stunning photos sweeping us into a frenzy of Out of Africa-ness. So read beneath the labels. If the focus is purely on the Big Five, with 'a bit of a cultural village visit' thrown in on the last day, the chances are this safari provider is putting profit way before people.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dave3006] [Tribal tourism: Andreas Lederer] [Development in Africa’s north: Jorge Láscar] [Hunting: FieldsportsChannel TV]