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Responsible tourism is about ethics, not marketing

“You can’t outsource responsibility,” says Harold Goodwin, a stalwart of the global move towards sustainable and meaningful tourism.

Giving the keynote speech at the 11th Responsible Tourism in Destinations conference – part of Africa Travel Week and World Travel Market Africa being held in Cape Town this week – Goodwin stressed the need for individuals in the South African tourism industry to make significant changes to the way they do business to make tourism more meaningful and sustainable.

“The argument for responsible tourism was made, and won, years ago in the United Kingdom and Europe,” says Goodwin. “The behaviour of tourists travelling from these markets has already adjusted, leaving them wanting authentic, genuine and sincere travel experiences, and yet the South African industry still insists on being provided with evidence that inbound tourists want sustainable and ethical, responsible holidays.”

Goodwin says today’s British and European tourists are “responsibly aware”, demanding long-haul holidays that offer local flavour and authentic experiences.

“They want to visit ‘real’ local communities and have ‘real’ interactions with ‘real’ people. They increasingly understand the political, economic and social impact their holiday choices have and look for destinations which support and reflect their ethics. They choose products and destinations that offer unique experiences, create a sense of place and contribute meaningfully to communities. They also understand that no two communities are ever exactly the same.”

Responsibility is free
Goodwin, professor of responsible tourism management at Leeds Beckett University in the UK, adds that making tourism “better” – better for tourists, better for tourism employees, better for local people and better for the environment – is the right thing to do.

He believes the South African tourism industry must stop insisting on being given a business case for responsibility, because there is none.

“You can either choose to be responsible or you can choose to be irresponsible. It’s a choice you make. Responsibility is free, it’s there on the shelf and you can take as much of it or as little as you like, any time you like.”

Responsible tourism means being responsible and ethical at every level of a tourism business. It is a choice of how to operate, not a marketing tool.

South Africa cannot afford to rest on its laurels, and has largely failed to capture the mass European market, says Garry Wilson, mainstream product and purchasing director of the world’s largest integrated travel group, TUI Travel. He effectively holds the world’s biggest chequebook when it comes to purchasing global travel products and he sees a lot of potential for tourism growth in the South African market if it can adopt a more responsible approach.

Although traditional inbound markets like the UK remain stable, South Africa has not seen significant growth from them over the past few years, and the number of visitors from emerging markets like China and India is in sharp decline.

Choosing how to operate
The marketing of the country as a tourism destination is handled by the government-funded South African Tourism, which does not actively draw attention to businesses or tourism products that are responsible and meet the ethical needs of visitors.

Responsible tourism is often misconstrued by marketers and industry professionals who present traditional culture and community activities that don’t offer sustainable benefits to local people.

“South Africa needs to focus much more on the transition to responsible, sustainable tourism practices and the development of products and infrastructure that support them,” says Wilson.

The challenge is to design better products, more effectively market those products and make tourism more inclusive and accessible, all of which are critical to sustainable tourism growth.

“Being responsible in the tourism arena helps to lower costs, has significantly lower impact on the environment, contributes to building better places for people to live and consequently better places for people to visit. It just makes perfect sense.”

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

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