Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

With ecotourism being an often overused terms in tourism today, African tour operators report they have seen an "ecotourism fatigue" among U.S. travelers.

"At Giltedge, we receive limited requests from our American clients for sustainable activities, outreach programs, lodges or tours," said Sean Kritzinger, managing director at Giltedge.

"If anything, sustainable tourism and ecotourism has become less of an issue for the U.S. traveler," added Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris. "I suspect it is ecotourism fatigue where clients are now wary of what exactly qualifies as a sustainable or ecofriendly product. So much contradictory information has been written about what constitutes being 'green' or ecofriendly that the meaning has lost its importance."

Holden added that clients want to be active and to stay connected, both activities that can require quantities of electrical current or power. "Sustainable lodges often cannot offer 24-hour connectivity due to power restrictions. Dim lights in tents, making reading difficult and sparse current and internet connections for laptops and computers, are often manifestations of sustainability; and clients don't like it!"

According to Iain Harris, founder and creative director of Coffeebeans Routes, the "fatigue" comes from the fact that responsible tourism is so often pitched as moralistic. "It's sold as giving back to the community," he said. "Why? Was something taken away in the first place? It's sold as something righteous and boring. And that will only ever appeal to a small set of people."

"The fatigue is that people have a demanding work life, and holiday should be an escape. Holiday is not the place to think about saving water and energy and reusing your towel," he said, adding that "responsible" needs to be like language: an invisible technology that just runs in the background.

Harris explained responsible travel can be exciting and should be seen as a way of engaging people deeply and meaningfully, where the luxury is about the level of engagement and not just the quality of the sheets and how many yogurts are available at breakfast. He said: "Responsible is about relationships: with people, with natural systems, and about how we manage those."

Peter Allsop, director of operations at Ilha Blue in Mozambique, agreed, explaining that true responsible tourism is definitely not boring and instead provides visitors with the opportunity to see through different eyes; to touch, taste and feel the world as somebody else does.

Said Allsop: "Picture an encounter with a family pod of humpback whales, the mother teaching the calf tricks like leaping out of the water or how to slap the surface with a fin, and imagine experiencing this in an intimate way with a small group of fellow travelers drifting silently alongside the pod in a traditional Swahili sailing dhow crewed entirely by local mariners. This is the kind of experience only responsible tourism can deliver, and the fact that it has local people and their culture at its core is why it is so important for Africa's tourism future."

Unfortunately, travelers often still associate the wrong activities as ecotourism or responsible tourism. "Elephant-back safaris and walking with lions are still the most sought-after activities by American clients," said Elizabeth Rampfshaw, senior tour consultant at Giltedge, "even though Giltedge doesn't offer them anymore as hands-on animal interactions are not part of our company ethos."

Robyn Stalson, USA manager at Giltedge, agreed but said that for the most part, among U.S. travelers, sustainable tourism is more about raising awareness. "During 2016 and 2017 awareness of ecotourism and responsible tourism has steadily climbed due to extensive media coverage as well as exposure to the unethical and unnatural outcome of close encounters between people and wild animals. The movie "Blood Lions" raised a lot of awareness," she said, referring to the 2015 documentary that exposed the practice of "canned" lion hunting in South Africa.

Although Stalson explained that currently very few travelers are asking specifically for an ecotour or an itinerary that is predominantly about conservation or sustainability, their interest level is elevated when informed about such products. She is upbeat about the future and said: "Perhaps 2018 will be the tipping point, and we will see a strong trend among American travelers choosing sustainable activities, products and tours.

"In the interim, it is important for tour operators to continue to promote sustainable and responsible travel options, such as Giltedge Africa's' Travel With a Purpose initiative as well as align themselves with sustainable partners in preparation for a more mainstream trend," said Stalson.

One provider every tour operator raves about in Africa is Uthando.

Said Rampfshaw: "This nonprofit organization offers meaningful, interactive and fun tours in South Africa for clients, letting tourists experience community projects that make a difference in townships and low-income suburbs. The projects are carefully handpicked by James and Xolani, and tourist can take part in anything from a microfarming tour to a dance youth project."

James Fernie, executive director of Uthando South Africa, is passionate about responsible tourism and offering travelers well-rounded and uplifting experiences. He urges international travel agents to source sustainable providers in Africa that will make a real difference to the continent. For Fernie, responsible tourism fatigue is simply not an option. "Sustainable and responsible tourism is critical for the future of Africa," he said.

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