Responsible tourism in Malawi

Malawi has a reputation as a friendly, relaxed and safe place in which to travel, but tourism has developed slowly here and the country remains one of the poorest in the world. Well managed tourism could be an important solution, providing much needed funds for development initiatives as well as to protect the local environment and wildlife. Key in this is the revitalisation of the country’s national parks and reserves, which have made impressive strides over the past decade, thanks to measures taken by both the government and NGOs. Find out more below and follow our tips and advice for a happier, more responsible vacation.

PEOPLE & CULTURE

Local communities don’t have as much of a stake in tourist ventures as in Kenya or Tanzania, where community-run lodges and conservancies are increasingly common, particularly on Masai land. However, there are a number of good lodges with responsible management that are doing a lot for their local area. Even lodges that don’t shout about it will generally be offering support in some way, employing staff from nearby villages or contributing to their schools, for example.

Accommodation owners and tour operators are aware of the positive impacts that tourism can have on local communities whether it be through local employment practices, ensuring their operations run with minimum environmental impact and in some cases through the active promotion of ecotourism activities within Malawi.

Many tours will offer the chance to spend time in a village and have positive interactions with the people that live there – perhaps learning how to pound maize, eating some traditional food and drink and just getting a glimpse of life as a rural Malawian.
What you can do
Talk to your vacation provider to find out its policy on employing local guides – and paying them fairly. Ask your lodge about its responsible credentials and how it’s involved in local life. You could also suggest a visit to one of the projects or villages it supports. You’ll most likely be welcome, even if it’s not something that’s usually advertised to travelers.

Wildlife and environment

Conservation and rehabilitation

With its gorgeous scenery, laid-back vibe and good-value activities aplenty around the lake and the mountains, Malawi has always been popular on the budget travel circuit, but its perceived weakness was always its wildlife. Many of the country’s national parks and reserves were hard hit by poaching and general neglect in the 1980s and 1990s, leaving them lacking in both wildlife and suitable accommodation. Thankfully, that situation has changed dramatically over the past 15 years because of conservation initiatives that are transforming the tourist experience in Malawi.

Non-profit organisation African Parks has transformed the Majete Wildlife Reserve and is including the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in its latest long-term initiative. It aims to help Malawi become the next big safari destination – bringing much needed employment, investment and tourist revenue into the country. Majete, for example, has drastically reduced poaching, reintroduced Black rhinos, elephants, lions and leopards, and now has over 12,200 animals thriving within its perimeter. The more established Liwonde National Park has also seen increased investment and relocations and, along with Majete, has recently achieved ‘Big Five’ status.

Effective law enforcement and close community engagement has led to a significant decline in the number of poaching incidents in the country's wilderness areas, and unlike some of its South African neighbours, Malawi doesn’t support trophy hunting. In December 2018, the government rejected a proposal to reintroduce it.

What you can do
Visit! Getting tourists like you into the country’s wild spaces is the best way to help conservation organisations to secure the country’s long-term future. And when you’re there, ask your guide questions about conservation efforts and what the parks are doing to support and involve local communities. You could also read the African Parks website to find out more about their work.

Illegal wildlife trade

A 2015 Illegal Wildlife Trade Review, co-authored by the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, found that criminals were using Malawi as a major trafficking hub, transporting ivory and other illegal wildlife commodities from neighbouring countries, through Malawi and then out of the continent. This was possible because of the country’s weak identification and enforcement systems. The report recommended a strengthening of local laws, increased inter-agency cooperation, an improvement in wildlife crime data and better training for law enforcement, among other measures.

To its credit, Malawi’s government has started to take a hard line against the ivory trade, signing a handful of international agreements, including the Elephant Protection Initiative, which incorporates a commitment to reject the ivory trade for a minimum of ten years – and thereafter until African elephant populations are no longer under threat. In July 2019 a landmark ruling saw a fine overturned in favour of a tougher jail sentence in the case of two Malawian brothers convicted of their role in the trafficking of 2.6 tonnes of ivory.

What you can do
The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth billions of dollars each year. While a large part of this trade is controlled by criminal gangs, much is also perpetrated by the hundreds of millions of people who unwittingly (or sometimes purposefully) buy souvenirs made from endangered species, such as statues and jewellery.

Don't purchase anything made from ivory even if it’s described as an “antique” or “mammoth ivory” – you will be contributing to the poaching of elephants, and you could have your item confiscated and even be arrested.

Overfishing

One of the Great Lakes of Africa, Lake Malawi has long since been a major food source for the region. But for years, fish stocks have been dwindling and now climate change is playing its part in further damaging livelihoods in this impoverished country. Unsustainable fishing practices are one of the main reasons behind the reduction in fish stocks, but thanks to climate change the rains on the lake have become more intense, making things harder for fishermen.
Three out of the four species of chambo, Malawi’s most economically valuable fish, are critically endangered, according to the World Wildlife Fund, leaving many fisheries on the brink of collapse.
The dangers of overfishing are thankfully being brought to the fore by marine conservation projects which involve and educate the locals wherever possible in an attempt to break negative cycles.
What can you do?
The most valuable thing you can do is engage with the local community in the destination that you visit and try and understand their point of view. It’s always worthwhile showing your support for organisations that are trying to combat the problem, such as Ripple Africa and Greenpeace.

Responsible tourism tips

Some Malawi vacations include a visit to local communities, including a local school. At Responsible Travel, we do not promote visits to schools or nurseries while the pupils are present. Tourists entering a classroom daily to take photos with kids is disruptive to their education, and can do more harm than help. Think about it – it would seem very strange if tourists to the US or UK were allowed to take tours of children’s schools! Additionally, any gifts should be given to teachers or staff and not to any children you may meet, who may start to see foreigners as a source of freebies, encouraging begging and bad perceptions. Never purchase items made from endangered species – including ivory, fur or bone. Malawi is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which bans trade in ivory. If caught with any ivory products you could be prosecuted and receive a prison sentence or fine. Lilongwe and Blantyre aren’t overly conservative cities, and many people dress in a very Western style, but dress conservatively if going to a school, market, village or through a border crossing. Exposed shoulders are fine, but a woman’s midriff is considered private. Miniskirts, hot pants and even leggings are not appropriate. Malawi is one of the world’s poorest nations. Do your bit by tipping your guides, drivers, cooks and hotel staff – discuss an appropriate amount with your tour operator before you depart, and come prepared with cash. Due to the high level of poverty in Malawi, there are endless volunteer opportunities. With few exceptions, Responsible Travel does not advise unqualified volunteers to find placements in orphanages – find out more through our orphanage campaign.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: BarryTuck] [People & culture: UrbanPromise] [Fishermen: SarahDepper]
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