Tour operators have appealed to U.S. travel agents to help them spread the word that responsible travel is key when booking a trip to Africa in order to ensure sustainability across the continent.

The topic was raised during the recent World Travel Market Africa 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa. One of the key events during WTM Africa was the announcement of the winners of the auspicious African Responsible Travel Awards, which are dedicated to profiling tourism and travel businesses that are set on improving the sustainability of the industry.

Wilderness Safaris captured the coveted Overall Winner position for reducing its use of plastic water bottles across the group by 75% since 2012 as well as for its transparent reporting in its Annual Integrated Report.

Simon Stobbs, Wilderness Safaris' business unit manager for North America, said that every stakeholder has a key role to play when it comes to ensuring the sustainability in Africa. He said: "It is important for travel agents to shift the focus towards sustainable tourism when clients initially inquire about Africa, as bringing it in later can be challenging."

Stobbs added that although it might be a bit of a stereotype, the reality is that it often costs more to run a truly sustainable tourism experience versus a less sustainable one. He said: "These costs are typically passed onto the guests, resulting in a guest paying more for a sustainable experience than for a similar experience that is less sustainable. Overseas travel agents need to play a key role in educating people about sustainable tourism practices and experiences."

It is crucial that guests are educated and aware, according to Stobbs. "We are definitely seeing that travelers in general are becoming more aware of this, and sustainability is starting to play a part in their buying behavior," he said. "To sum it up, sustainability needs to be considered as a key factor in the buying cycle, and the agent has an important role to play in making the potential traveler aware of this."

North Island Seychelles brought home Gold in the category Best for Aquatic Species and Habitat Conservation. Tarryn Retief, conservation manager for North Island, explained North Island's most significant achievement has been to create a safe haven for endangered species whilst simultaneously creating the world's most exclusive private-island hideaway. She said: "This proves that luxury with a conscience is possible."

Retief explained that travel agents indeed play a pivotal role in guiding the conversation around the important topics in today's world, such as conservation. She said: "They have the opportunity to encourage their clients to ask questions they might not have known they had and simultaneously can put pressure on tourism providers by asking them what they are doing for their environment and local communities. Through awareness and education, travel agents can shine a light on hotels and resorts who are making a difference and make worthy initiatives commercially viable."

Nande Junias of Explorer Tours and Travel, which received a commendation in the category Best for Global Goals and a silver in the Best Responsible Cultural Experience, agreed, pointing out that travel agents are in an enviable position as they can influence the choices of consumers, the practices of suppliers and the development within destinations.

Suppliers in turn can make an important contribution to the protection of the environment and culture, and in promoting social and human rights standards in the destinations they visit, according to Junias. He said: "More and more tourism businesses take an active approach toward sustainability, not only because consumers expect them to do so but also because they are aware that intact destinations such as Namibia are essential for the long-term survival of the tourism industry."

Junias explained that travelers often don't realize the extent to which they can make a difference. He said: "What may be a simple to-do activity on one's travel itinerary is in fact life-changing to the guest and those families who depend solely on the income received through Explorer Tours in the Mondesa community in Swakopmund."

He predicted the demand for sustainable tourism will become more widespread as evidence suggests that younger travelers in particular are already practicing sustainability at home and at work. "Modern travelers have become concerned about the health of the planet, about the economic well-being of the communities they visit, and compassionate toward the people living in the destinations they visit."

Sustainability is the driving force behind everything that All Out Africa does, according to Ginger Green, the company's sales and marketing coordinator. All Out Africa received a commendation for the category Best for Aquatic Species and Habitat Conservation.

Said Green: "We believe the best way to create change is by working in collaboration with the communities we support. By creating goals, strategies and projects that support the needs and desires of the people who are affected by development or conservation issues, we can be sure that we will have a lifelong partner when it comes to creating change," she said.

Green explained travel agents have been a great asset when it comes to finding quality volunteers. Some volunteers come to Africa and expect five-star hotels and fast WiFi and spend their free time exploring the local nightlife. "The communities we work with are vulnerable in many ways, and our volunteers play an active part, along with our team, to create a better circumstance for them. In order to do this we want our volunteers to listen and learn as much as they teach," she said.

Green cited an example of when she first started at All Out Africa and wanted to get leather bracelets made that had "All Out Africa" stamped into them. She said: "As an American, I went looking for the best deal. I spoke to over a dozen craftsmen, and not one offered me a lower price. I couldn't understand how no one was negotiating with me. After all, I was ordering hundreds of bracelets! After a few hours of this, I finally asked, 'Why?' The answer was simple: The handicraft community was tight-knit, and no one wanted to cut out their neighbor. As an American, this took me a minute to comprehend, as it was the complete opposite of any capitalistic ideal I had ever been taught in marketing school. But in the end, what a great sentiment! To protect your neighbor over making the better profit. This wasn't a wrong or bad ideal; it was just different."

It can be difficult for overseas travel agents to identify which organizations in Africa are sustainable. Stobbs shared the following advice: "It is sometimes difficult to see through any 'green washing,' but it's important to note that sustainability needs to run across both environmental and socio-cultural areas. An organization needs to walk the talk on the ground and not use sustainability merely as a marketing tool. There is plenty of information available online, and a bit of research will often help in separating the green-washers from those who are making a difference. First prize, however, is always to get out to Africa and experience things first hand."
It's a two-way street, added Green, who said that as an organization, All Out Africa is also picky about who it partners with. She said: "We want to make sure that our agents are behind our goals and vision, just as much as we hope the volunteers they send us will be. We don't want to work with agents who refer to the communities we work with as 'natives' or pitch working in an orphanage as a tourist opportunity. We are about people and development, not just about making money; so we appreciate the ability to form a relationship with our agents, too!"

The winners at the awards were:

  • Overall Winner: Wilderness Safaris Botswana
  • Best for Global Goals: Wilderness Safaris Botswana (Gold), Spier (Silver), Basecamp Explorer (Highly commended)
  • Best for Decent Work and Inclusion: Spier (Silver), PEAK East Africa (Silver)
  • Best Responsible Cultural Experience: Basecamp Explorer (Silver)
  • Best for Innovation in Water Management: Wilderness Safaris Southern Africa (Silver)
  • Best for Aquatic Species and Habitat Conservation: North Island Seychelles (Gold), Marine Dynamics (Silver), All Out Africa (Highly commended)

Harold Goodwin, chair of the judging panel, said: "As in the World Responsible Tourism Awards, the judges looked for winners who might educate and inspire others, challenging the industry to achieve more by demonstrating what can be done by businesses and organizations to realize the ambition of responsible tourism. That ambition is simply put: to use tourism to make better places for people to live in."

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