Africa Travel Week focuses on sustainable tourism

The world of African tourism shifted temporarily to Cape Town’s International Convention Centre this week, with three major events putting a much-needed focus on the vital role tourism plays in the economies of South Africa and the continent.

The International Business Travel Market Africa, International Luxury Travel Market Africa and World Travel Market Africa were largely taking over the city until Friday.

The three expositions, known collectively as Africa Travel Week, attract exhibitors, tourism decision-makers, captains of the industry and media from around the continent for networking sessions, workshops, conferences and product launches. It provides a platform for tourism authorities, government departments and nongovernmental organisations to address the challenges and issues facing tourism in Africa.

“This isn’t just a shop window,” said Carol Weaving, the managing director of Thebe Reed Exhibitions, one of Africa’s leading events companies, which with Reed Travel Exhibitions in the United Kingdom organises the event. “It’s an opportunity for everyone involved with tourism on the continent to meet and discuss the impact tourism is having on both local and national economies and how to improve this.”

A major economic driver
The Ebola crisis in West Africa has hit the African tourism industry particularly hard over the past year. A lack of understanding of Africa’s geography combined with sensationalist media coverage and misinformation saw tourist arrivals and revenue tumble in countries such as Zambia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. The negative impact was also felt in South Africa.

Tourism contributes approximately 3% of South Africa’s gross domestic product each year, employing 4.4% of the overall labour force. The government has identified it as one of the major economic drivers, especially in cash-strapped rural areas. About nine million tourists visit the country each year and the government hopes to increase this number to 15-million by 2017 and tourism revenue to $41-billion by 2020.

The business tourism sector is one of the industry’s fastest growing, with meetings, incentives, conferences and events boosting the coffers of South Africa’s major conference hubs of Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg.

International Business Travel Market Africa caters for more than 30 000 delegates, all of whom will be looking for ways to improve their businesses and continue the upward trends.

But, in spite of encouraging growth, the much-touted trickle-down effect of tourism is not being felt widely enough, and South Africa and other African countries need to make serious efforts to ensure that impoverished communities start benefiting from it in a measurable and sustainable manner.

With this in mind, the overarching theme at Africa Travel Week was responsible and sustainable tourism, which will empower and uplift people while helping to protect and conserve the often fragile environments on which so much of African tourism depends.

“Responsible, sustainable tourism is absolutely essential for the continued growth of the industry in Africa,” Weaving said. “As such, we have incorporated the 11th international conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations into Africa Travel Week, and will see the first African Responsible Tourism Awards taking place at World Travel Market Africa on April 16.”

The awards are part of the prestigious World Responsible Tourism Awards and will honour the heroes of responsible tourism in Africa and celebrate the efforts made by individuals, organisations and destinations on the continent.

Luxury sector takes the lead
For global travellers, the concept of sustainable, responsible tourism is growing fast, with more and more international visitors choosing destinations where they are assured that their hard-earned holiday spending is making meaningful changes to people and the planet.

From the tourism industry’s point of view, the notion of responsible tourism, with a solid, demonstrable commitment to it and the underpinning principles, is beginning to take hold.

The luxury sector has led the way in this respect, according to International Luxury Travel Market Africa senior exhibition director Alison Gilmore.

“Tourism can be a powerful vehicle for changing people’s thinking and behaviour, and the African luxury travel industry should be applauded for its work in delivering long-lasting benefits to host communities,” she said.

“Africa’s leading luxury operators are directing considerable resources into changing the behaviour and mind-set of tourists, engaging them on transformative journeys that ensure the sustainable health and wellbeing of local people and their economic, sociocultural and ecological environments.”

South Africa is at the forefront of this trend and is home to some of the continent’s champions of sustainable, responsible tourism. Fair Trade Tourism, a nonprofit organisation that has adapted the principles of the Fairtrade movement to the tourism industry in Southern Africa, has been a trailblazer in this respect for the past decade.

Fair Trade Tourism assists tourism businesses to operate more sustainably and facilitates a certification programme that demonstrates to tourists that a destination is committed to important aspects such as fair wages and working conditions, fair purchasing and operations, equitable distribution of benefits and respect for human rights, culture and the environment.

Sharon Gilbert-Rivett is an award-winning journalist and film-maker specialising in sustainable tourism and conservation in Africa.

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