SA firmly entrenched on the global ecotourism map
‘Green tourism’ combines conservation, community, culture and commerce to claim its place in the country’s tourism sector
The word “ecotourism” was coined by Mexican environmentalist Hector Cabellos-Lascurain, who defined it as environmentally responsible travel to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature and promote conservation. It has low visitor impact and provides for beneficially active socioeconomic involvement of local populations.
A growing number of tourists globally, look for ecotourism destinations that do less harm to the environment, reduce their environmental footprint and support local communities. SA, which is a signatory to Article 6 of the Convention on Biological Diversity requiring countries to integrate biodiversity conservation and sustainability into economic planning, has developed a number of ecotourism destinations into its tourism offering over the years.
The third most biodiverse region in the world, SA is ranked as the 17th most megadiverse country globally. Its natural areas are conserved through a number of UN Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation (Unesco) world heritage sites, national parks and nature reserves. It’s also the only country boasting an entire floristic kingdom within its borders, the Cape Floristic Region, or fynbos.
It boasts a host of leading and world-renowned ecotourism destinations, all of which are environmentally responsible, allow travellers to access relatively undisturbed natural areas and appreciate nature, while promoting conservation and ensuring visitor impact is minimal. The majority of ecotourism destinations involve and benefit local communities.
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
One of the most biodiverse areas in southern Africa, iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu- Natal boasts greater biodiversity than either Botswana’s Okavango Delta or the Kruger National Park. Historically a fishing and beach destination, ecotourism has become a core component of iSimangaliso’s conservation strategy over the past two decades.
The park, which includes Sodwana and Kosi Bay, coastal forest, lakes, wetlands, mountains and shorelines, has become renowned for its beauty as well as boating, cycling, game drives, bird watching, turtle tours, guided walks and whale watching.
More than 200km of pristine coastline and protected coral reefs ensure this is a nature lover’s paradise. The park boasts 520 bird species and a diversity of game, including the endemic Setaro’s dwarf chameleon and nocturnal leopard. Most historically occurring animals have been reintroduced and all alien plants removed.
Community members have equity in all privately owned lodges in the park, while nine community-owned and operated companies run a number of tourism operations in the park, including game drives, boat tours and turtle tours, with 90% of jobs filled by local community members.
The oldest proclaimed nature reserve in SA, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is situated in central KwaZulu-Natal. Originally three separate parks, Hluhluwe and iMfolozi were originally established primarily in order to protect the endangered white rhino. It became the first area in Africa to be established as a “wilderness area”.
The park is known for its diverse wildlife — including the Big Five — and rich birdlife, which includes a total of 320 recorded species and diverse fauna and flora. An important archaeological site and an area rich in history and cultural heritage, signs of Stone Age settlements can be found throughout the park. The park is also renowned for its wilderness trails.
uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park
A World Heritage Site and one of SA’s largest conservation areas, this 243,000 hectares park borders KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho. Its mountainous terrain includes high peaks and plateaus and plunging gorges and is popular with hikers, walkers, nature lovers and San art enthusiasts. All visitors pay a community levy, which funds a school, clinic and basic services for the community. A variety of conservation programmes are engaged with local communities to protect wildlife and vulnerable areas.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
One of SA’s leading ecotourism destinations, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is defined by mesmerising red and white sand dunes. Straddling both SA and Botswana, the arid 37,256km² park is one of the largest ecosystems in Africa mostly devoid of human interference.
In 2002 a large portion of the park was restored to indigenous Komani San and Mier communities who since then have split the income derived from the land. Two rivers traverse the park, although both flow infrequently. Three large pans support wildlife including black-maned lions, leopard, cheetah, hyena, black-backed jackal, caracal and foxes.
Richtersveld Transfrontier Park
This is a world Heritage Site, Peace Park and conservation area situated close to SA’s border with Namibia.
The Richtersveld Transfrontier Park includes nearly 6,000km² of desert mountain scenery, succulent flora, the famed Fish River Canyon and a river mouth that is a Ramsar site, designated as a wetland of international importance. It is one of the few remaining regions where indigenous inhabitants have continued their traditional nomadic lifestyle.
The park provides a good example of inclusive community participation. The Richtersveld Community Conservancy offers accommodation controlled by the local community.
Agulhas National Park
The rugged, windswept coastline of the Agulhas National Park is a treasure trove of botanical diversity with Lowland fynbos, around 300 plants that are unique to the park and over 21,000 water birds. Situated at the southern-most tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas is the meeting point of the Indian and Atlantic oceans.
The area is also rich in heritage: outside the park is a lighthouse dating back to 1849 while inside the park, shellfish middens created hundreds of years ago can still be seen. The park benefits local communities by employing around 450 people as well as numerous small- and medium-sized enterprises in local projects.
Garden Route National Park
The Garden Route National Park encompasses a picturesque view of lakes, rivers, estuaries and beaches including a variety of ecosystems and unique fauna and flora. It comprises three distinct sections: Knysna Lake, Tsitsikamma and Wilderness sections, all with their own unique attractions.
The park conserves a considerable portion of the natural biota of the Garden Route. The primary vegetation biomes consist of mountain and coastal fynbos, Afro-montane forest and the marine herb-land, inter-tidal, and sub-tidal zones.
It also includes one of the largest Marine Protected Areas in the world, proclaimed in 1964, which aims to conserve 11% of SA’s temperate south coast rocky shoreline and provides for baseline research on endangered linefish species.
Addo Elephant National Park
Situated in the Eastern Cape, Addo is SA’s third largest national park. It boasts a finely tuned ecosystem that includes unique subtropical thicket vegetation as well as diverse wildlife including lion, buffalo, black rhino, hyena, leopard, whales, penguins and, exclusive to the park, the flightless dung beetle.
A development trust representing local communities receives a percentage of turnover from the park’s Matyholweni rest camp, while guides typically come from communities close to the park. All lodges within Addo operate sustainable waste, water and power practices.
This article was paid for by the South African Tourism Board.