Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

Climate change could easily become the next pandemic if we don't pay more attention to our planet.  So said African Bush Camps founder Beks Ndlovu during a recent webinar on green tech as the next frontier for ecotourism hosted by Africa Travel Week.

Fortunately, industry players agree that both the trade and travelers have started feeling a sense of urgency when it comes to prioritizing the planet.  "We see a sense of urgency from the trade right through to the customer, and there's a greater demand for transparency," said Colin Bell, co-founder of Natural Selection Safaris.

Bell said Natural Selection recently started to separate its community and conservation costs from its accommodations, activities and drinks costs. Although the company expected pushback from the travel trade, who don't earn commission on the conservation costs, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

"We thought we would have pushback because conservation is a net number. However, we only get debate on the cost of accommodation, but nobody is questioning the community and conservation costs," Bell said. "There has been complete buy-in as the trade also wants conservation to be around for a long time. We're all on the same page. Transparency clearly is the next big frontier for ecotourism."

One company that has been advocating for years for a separation of the conservation and community levies from the price of the bed nights is Classic Portfolio. Suzanne Bayly, owner of Classic Portfolio, explained: "We should not be hiding the high costs of on the ground responsibility behind high bed rates, which require layers of luxury. Building rates and financial models by separating conservation fees from accommodation costs is far more sustainable. We need to build this into the reservation system as a separate item and account for this income in a transparent manner."

For, Bayly, the solution is simple. If tour operators want to act in a more sustainable way, they can do five simple things:

1. Don't mark-up conservation levies, park fees, etc. on invoices to clients. 
2. Introduce itemized invoices, which show the amount that is being paid for conservation and community levies and park fees.
3. Choose to work with lodges, camps and hotels who are making a positive impact. 
4. Plan trips to locations in the off season, because conservation is a year-round responsibility.
5. Plan trips to more remote locations where each tourism dollar has a far greater impact than it does in the areas of high-density tourism.

A burning question in the sustainable tourism space remains whether the capital produced from tourism is enough to be able to reverse the human effect on our planet.

This is a global challenge that needs global support, according to Robert More, founder and CEO at More Family Collection.

He explained that the growth of the ecotourism industry is essential to the preservation of untouched land in Africa. "As a conservationist at heart, I just hope this ecotourism industry continues to grow exponentially because in doing that, we can protect vast areas of land -- and in doing that, we can slow climate change and hopefully stop it within the next three to five years," he said.

Harold Goodwin, managing director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership and advisor to WTM Africa on its Responsible Tourism program, agreed and said that tourism revenues are essential to funding conservation and justifying leaving the land wild.

Unfortunately, the flight-shaming narrative has done more damage than good for conservation and sustainability in Africa. According to Bell, Africa needs tourists to be able to continue to maintain vast open lands and pay for conservation.

"The open African savannahs are currently one of the biggest carbon absorbers in the world. In Africa, we are cleaning up a lot of the world's pollution in our soils. We need to keep the African savannah in pristine condition, and the only way to do this is by generating revenue through tourism. So the easiest way to [fight] climate change is to come on safari to Africa," said Bell.

More agreed, saying unless ecotourism can enhance local economies, conservation areas cannot be sustained. He explained that it is imperative that the travelers and the trade learn the language of sustainability as very often, people simply don't know what to look for or ask about. "We're still a generation away from the traveler having a good understanding of good practice."

It is encouraging to see how rapidly the tide is turning, however. More explained that the trade is increasingly asking to see community projects when visiting Africa on educationals. "We know time is always a scarce commodity, so it's great to see the trade is making time to sit down with management and look at community projects and solar panels."

Over the past decade, we've come a long way, concluded Bell. He said: "There used to only be a few stellar performers, a couple of 'pirates' and then the majority of industry players that were hovering somewhere in the middle. There's been a lot of work done behind the scenes to transform the industry, and the tide is starting to turn."

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