The massive continent of Africa is undoubtedly one of the top tourist destinations in the world. It’s renowned for a range of attractions such as the amazing wildlife, historical sites, pristine sandy beaches, snow-capped mountains and cultural diversity.
It also has breathtaking landscapes and natural beauty. Its savannahs, deserts and forests are spectacular; and this makes it a bucket list item for many travelers.
There are hundreds of national parks and game reserves that pull visitors to see the wildlife, with the ‘Big Five’ being the most popular attraction.
The term ‘Big Five’ refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot. It was coined by big-game hunters. They include the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo; and can be found in 13 sub-Saharan African countries.
As popular tourist destinations, African countries have adopted ecotourism and are involved in initiatives such as sustainable tourism planning, community mobilization and sensitization, as well as environmental audits.
What is ecotourism?
Ecotourism is a form of tourism that involves the conservation of the environment and natural resources, while at the same time improving the lives of the locals in that area. It is important to note that the main aim of ecotourism is to protect the resources from exploitation and degradation.
Ecotourism can also be defined as responsible tourism. This is because as you travel to these places, you must put in mind the biological diversity of the site, the well being of the locals, and how you can improve it. Therefore, ecotourism advocates for the preservation and proper use of natural resources.
Principles of ecotourism
For an in-depth understanding of how ecotourism works, the International Ecotourism Society says that stakeholders in the tourism industry should adopt the following principles:
- Minimize physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts.
- Build environmental and cultural awareness and respect.
- Provide positive experiences for both visitors and hosts.
- Provide direct financial benefits for conservation.
- Generate financial benefits for both local people and private industry.
- Deliver memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates.
- Design, construct and operate low-impact facilities.
- Recognize the rights and spiritual beliefs of the indigenous people in your community, and work in partnership with them to create empowerment.
Ecotourism started as a way to give back to the local community and appreciate the people’s efforts in conserving their environment. Some communities in developing countries struggle economically, lack of sustainable income and are at times unable to get formal education.
In some cases, they survive through the exploitation of natural resources through practices such as charcoal burning which brings about deforestation.
This is where ecotourism comes in to help them conserve the environment and at the same time, make a decent living out of it.
Benefits of ecotourism to local communities
Tourism is a great foreign exchange earner for several African countries. It generates revenue which can be used by the national governments to fund different projects.
The governments, tour companies, and non-governmental organizations work together in implementing ecotourism in the region. They also create awareness to the public on the positive effects of ecotourism.
An organization such as Ecotourism Kenya has integrated communities and community-based tourism into mainstream tourism in the country. It has also built capacity for the local people to more effectively engage with tourism issues.
Below are some of the benefits of ecotourism to local communities in Africa.
1. Income generation
In most cases, people living around ecotourism sites are low income earners. Ecotourism has created employment to the locals in national parks, reserves, nature conservancies, restaurants among others.
From the wages earned in different jobs, people can sustain themselves and lead decent lives. As these workers earn money, they also use the money to get services and purchase things within their locality. This means money gets into their hands and back to their community. This improves the area economically.
Before ecotourism came into the picture, the primary forms of income were through practices such as illegal forest logging which threatened the environment.
Tourists spend on things like food, and the restaurants in that place generate income directly. The restaurant owners purchase goods from the community, thus locals also end up benefitting. The income acquired from tourists can be used for the economic development of the community.
Ecotourism, therefore, has improved the standards of living of local communites in African countries. It has significantly impacted these countries’ economies and the people’s purchasing power.
2. Preserving biodiversity
Africa is one of the continents with unmatched wildlife, but it is sad that there are cases of natural resources are being exploited and misused. In the past, activities such as tree logging and clearing land for agriculture or settlement led to the destruction plants and the natural habitats of animals.
Before ecotourism started gaining popularity among the people, human activities like deforestation and poaching had become quite rampant. The people were doing all these things just to survive. It is sad that some plants and animals became extinct. At the moment, we have several animal species that are endangered.
Ecotourism discourages these acts by coming up with alternative survival methods. As a result, the environment is protected from ecological imbalance, pollution and general destruction. Tree cutting has strongly been discouraged. Afforestation and reafforestation have taken root in these communities.
Endangered species such as mountain gorillas in the Virunga Massif have been protected, and there is a chance of them multiplying. In 1981, environmentalists estimated that there were 254 of them in the whole world. However, this number has steadily increased to 1,004 mountain gorillas in 2018.
When it comes to gorilla trekking, national parks such as Bwindi in Uganda allow only 80 people to see mountain gorillas each day. This is because their natural habitat is very fragile, and every time you walk in this forest you leave a footprint.
Other endangered species that have been protected include the black rhino, the Hirola (hunter’s antelope), and the mountain bongo.
Therefore, since the introduction of ecotourism, positive outcomes have been witnessed in the environment.
3. Preservation of locals’ culture and heritage
Ecotourists are people who travel to different destinations to see the environmental and cultural aspects of the people within. They go to different places intending to get unique experiences far away from home. This gives the locals a chance to showcase their culture, heritage, and lifestyle.
The natives in these host countries portray aspects such as their traditions, ancient art and architecture, music and even dressing. Visitors to East Africa get the opportunity to mingle with the Maasai people who have preserved most of their cultural practices.
In the same way that the ecosystem and environment faces different risks, so is the culture and traditions of different societies. Their threats may not be similar to those to the environment but all the same, some are at the verge of extinction. They face threats of westernization, which makes traditional ways of life obsolete.
Ecotourism tries to help preserve culture while embracing new things. When visitors learn about the culture of the natives in these countries, they get to understand them better and respect their beliefs.
Ecotourism has therefore helped different communities in Africa to take pride in their cultures and preserve them for longer.
4. Improvement of infrastructure
The revenue earned from a tourist destination can be used by the government to improve these visitors’ attractions. The funds are also used for infrastructural development of these areas. Old roads are improved and new ones are constructed.
Public places are given a facelift, and this helps to attract more visitors. Most importantly, new and improved infrastructure is beneficial to residents.
The revenue collected is also used to develop schools, hospitals, communication lines and even airports where possible. These can improve the economic development of the area and create more jobs.
Good infrastructure and better communication lines mean that services and movement of goods are greatly improved. Many areas in Africa have developed as a result of ecotourism.
5. Creating awareness on the importance of conservation
Some people never used to appreciate their local environment and surroundings. Through ecotourism, people get to see the impact of environmental and cultural conservation. They are encouraged to use their resources sustainably and protect their environment from destructive acts such as illegal forest logging.
Local communities living near national parks and other tourist destinations are now enlightened on the importance of taking care of the environment. They have learned ways through which they can conserve the environment and at the same time benefit from it. Environmental degradation has reduced, and the ecological system is beginning to gain balance.
6. Reduction of human-wildlife conflict
In a typical ecology consisting of humans and animals, it is normal for conflicts to arise in the course of their interaction. Some of the conflicts include the destruction of crops by animals, poaching among others. This may result in loss of lives (for either humans or animals), stiff competition of available natural resources and environmental degradation.
When human-animal conflict occurs, specific steps and measures have to be taken to keep animals away from humans, while protecting both of them. Such actions include translocation where certain animals are moved to different places (especially the endangered ones).
The population size can also be regulated so that the available resources match the existing population. In other instances, fences are used to restrict wild animals from leaving parks and reserves.
Through ecotourism, parks have been constucted in such away that animals are restricted in one area. As opposed to killing them when they invade, people are taught the importance of conserving these animals.
There is no doubt that ecotourism is beneficial to both the environment and the local community at large. When visiting such places, always keep in mind that your actions will help improve or degrade the lives of people around the area. Make sure you are a responsible tourist. Strive to support the social, economic and cultural diversity of the area. Your activities should protect the environment, add value and support the community. That is what thrives in humanity.
Before you travel to your preferred destination, do a background check of the place. Learn about their history, environment, cultural practices, and even language so that you are in a good position to interact with locals and appreciate the ecosystem in that place.
In the course of your travel, preserve the environment and make sure your acts positively impact everyone in the surrounding. After your visit, suggest some of the aspects you wish could be improved and acknowledge the successful efforts of this practice.