As I reported in last month's Africa e-newsletter, many American travelers seem to be suffering from a kind of ecotourism fatigue. But African tour operators say it doesn't have to be that way.
"Responsible tourism experiences are powerful experiences that are crucial for the future of Africa's tourism industry. Travelers can have authentic, uplifting and fun experiences while meeting inspiring people," said James Fernie, executive director of Uthando, a nonprofit organization in Cape Town.
Africa has a number of fantastic and exciting sustainable tourism experiences that are sure to spark the interest of even the most skeptical traveler.
Art experience in township homes: This year, the Maboneng Township Arts Experience in Johannesburg won a Silver award in the Best for Engaging People & Culture category at the African Responsible Tourism Awards. With this initiative, the local artist Siphiwe Ngwenya has been turning township homes into exhibition spaces from Johannesburg to Cape Town.
International visitors meet with locals in their homes to experience the wealth of their culture. This initiative provides market access for emerging artists as well as additional income for them. It celebrates cultural diversity and provides opportunities for cultural integration for hosts and guests.
Sustainable animal 'interactions': Travelers wanting to engage with wildlife are urged to embark on sustainable or responsible trips. "Animals that were previously being ridden or handled by tourists are now being used in a more sustainable way," said Elizabeth Rampfshaw, senior tour consultant at Giltedge.
Rampfshaw explained that Wild Horizons has introduced an Elephant Art Safari where travelers can create paintings of elephants in their natural surroundings with the guidance of an art tutor. "They continue to offer Elephant Encounter activities to educate people and use the money for conservation efforts," she said, adding that, along the same lines, Safari Par Excellence offers a dining experience surrounded by elephants at the Elephant Cafe.
Another option is to embark upon a walking safari with a camel by your side with Karisia Walking Safaris. These safaris offer a unique perspective of not just the animals but the land they live in. The company is dedicated to the conservation of wildlife, and the game has rebounded spectacularly since Karisia began protecting it. Predators have come back in an area where they were persecuted not long ago, and the plains game have also sprung back since the intense pressure from livestock has been relieved.
Rub shoulders with the locals in South Africa: Recently launched, Wowzulu is a tourism company promoting rural development. The company offers fun and off-the-beaten-track tourism activities in rural communities.
Travelers can visit an artist's home and learn about Zulu beadwork, visit a Sangoma (traditional healer) and listen to her stories of how she found her calling or help make honey on a local honey farm. They can take a tractor ride to a cattle kraal in the Drakensberg and spend the day with a local family, helping them prepare the fields, milk the cows and participate in traditional ceremonies. Whichever experience travelers choose, they can be sure that at least five locals benefit from their tourism experience.
Up-close encounters: Cultural exchange experiences tend to have a profound impact on travelers, said Henk Graaff, managing director of SW Africa. In conjunction with Uthando, SW Africa organizes soccer games with local teams or jam sessions with local music groups. Said Graaff: "Playing music together, exchanging ideas and sharing similar interests brings a connection between the cultures on a different level and leads to very powerful experiences."
Green lodges: Behind the scenes, it's also important for travelers to opt for sustainable accommodation establishments.
Said Onne Vegter, managing directo of Wild Wings Safaris: "One of the most exceptional examples I have come across of a hotel that has really gone the extra mile to showcase sustainability and what is possible is Hotel Verde in Cape Town. This is probably the most 'green' hotel in Cape Town, if not South Africa. It's inspiring to see what they have done."
Verde offers green touches even in the smallest details. Some of the artwork at the hotel, for example, has been created with reused materials. The hotel's gym offers three different pieces of energy-generating equipment: a bicycle, a recumbent bicycle and an elliptical machine. Each of these machines displays the amount of instantaneous power being produced by the user and a separate panel displays the cumulative power produced.
Said Vegter: "For this hotel, sustainability is not a buzzword on their marketing material but a practical value that they operate by. There is certainly a demand for such product, and we often see genuine appreciation from our clients who have stayed there and seen their commitment to sustainable tourism."
Exploring the sustainability of the wetlands in Kenya: The environment in itself can also be "sustainable." Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris, said: "Amazing to think that the exceptional sustainability tourism experience I would cite has been around for over 20 years: the simple and unassuming wetland system."
According to Holden, only two lodges — Siana Springs Tented Camp and Olonana — use the wetland system in the Masai Mara, arguably Africa's greatest wildlife park and a World Heritage Site. He explained that the wetland system is a series of connected ponds, filled with hydroponic plants, through which all a lodge's waste water flows by gravity while the plants symbiotically clean the water sucking out all pollutants.
Participate in a cooking workshop in Rwanda: Azizi is a community-based art cooperative that helps rural Rwandan artists access the global market and connect with one another in a supportive, nurturing environment.
Travelers will learn the traditional technique behind the classic banana juice drink from tree to bottle and support artists in rural Rwanda. They'll also be able to share a meal with their hosts and immerse themselves in the Muhanga community.