Responsible tourism in South Africa

So many people think about The Big Five when it comes to South Africa, missing the exciting and eclectic mix of the Big Nine. The nine provinces that is, each with a very different cultural heritage and their own stories and secrets to share. You really can have the holiday of a lifetime here without seeing one wild animal, although that is unlikely. And it would be a shame not to, of course. But the greater shame would be to just stick a bit of South African culture on the end of your itinerary. There is a vivaciousness and vibrancy about South Africans, but both vary in style according to the regional and tribal heritage. Don't try to understand them all on one trip; research two or three before you go and aim to delve as deeply as you can when you are there. In doing that, the other responsible tourism principles will fall into place. You may not touch every colour of their Rainbow Nation, but you will reap the golden memories at the end of it.

Wildlife & environment

Hunts, shoots & leaves

It is upsetting to contemplate that the animal you have just spotted, photographed and will remember forever, might then be hunted by humans. However, hunting is a big way of life in South Africa, and very often it plays an incredibly important part in conservation strategies. It is also likely that when you go back to your safari lodge, there will be zebra or springbok on the menu.

While we don't like the idea of hunting, at Responsible Travel we are not against it entirely. We do believe that well-managed hunting has its place, as it encourages the protection of large swathes of land and generates a huge income. To be truly sustainable, there must be strictly enforced quotas which have been recommended by independent experts, and not by the reserve owners or tour operators themselves. These quotas must ensure viable populations, and there must be considerable reinvestment in community projects and conservation.

Canned hunting, however, when animals are reared simply for the purpose of being hunted, is far from responsible and to be avoided at all costs. It does nothing for the environment - or for local people. There are several canned hunting reserves in South Africa, and tourists should also be wary of the fact that some of these are also in the market for conservation volunteers. Unwittingly, tourists turn up to count, care for and monitor animals, unaware that elsewhere on this massive, privately owned piece of land, the animals are then being hunted - for a fee of tens of thousands of pounds. However, in 2021, South Africa announced that it would end its multi-million dollar canned hunting program, and hopefully this horrendous practise will soon be a thing of the past.
Canned hunting is far from responsible and to be avoided at all costs. It does nothing for the environment - or for local people.
Hunting is an important source of conservation income in South Africa, and will continue as long as this money is needed. So just be prepared for the fact that conservation and killing do often go hand in hand, and if you want to avoid this, choose your organisation carefully. It is interesting to note that Botswana recently banned hunting, and the world will watch with interest how this progresses for them as a leading wildlife destination.

See articles National Geographic and The Guardian
What you can do:
Jeremy Smith, co-author of Clean Breaks by Rough Guides and founder of the Fair Game tourism initiative - supporting efforts to address the poaching crisis threatening much of our most endangered wildlife: "Real walking safaris in the bush with an armed guide to protect you in the wilds are an incredible experience. But stay clear of any trips that offer the opportunity to walk with and pet animals in small private locations where there are semi domesticated lions or other animals wandering around. You can even walk with a tiger, which isn't native to South Africa! Some of these organisations say they are aiding conservation through research, but their claims are mostly dubious. Most of all though, it promotes the wrong relationship between us and wild animals."

Anne Smellie is a Wildlife Volunteering Expert with our Supplier Oyster Worldwide. She shares her tips on choosing the right volunteer placement, and avoiding canned hunting reserves:
"Do your research. There are lots of issues with wildlife volunteering and it's so important to establish that you're going somewhere that volunteers are actually needed, where it's actually benefitting the animals and not just a money spinner. You must ask questions about the purpose of the park where you're planning on volunteering. Why are volunteers needed? Is this a job that local people could be paid to do? It's so important. There are so many heartbroken volunteers who haven't been doing what they thought they were there for. Ask your operator if they have visited the project, and what their experience was. Ask to speak to other volunteers that have taken part. The projects that are valuable will be the ones who are getting the operators down to experience it - they'll be happy to promote what they're doing."

People & culture

Township Tourism

Township tourism is controversial. In slums, favelas and townships around the world, these kinds of tours have gained a reputation as "drive-by-shooting" trips. Sounds horrific, but actually, that is what they are - inviting tourists to drive through and shoot photos of some of the world's most deprived people, without giving anything in return.

However, South Africa's townships are home to many millions of its residents, including representatives from all its cultures, and provide an important way for visitors to the country to get a real insight into modern South Africa. More importantly, they are an opportunity for some of the country's poorest people to promote their heritage, generate an income for themselves and their families, and develop much-needed community initiatives. So we highly recommend including a township tour - or two - onto your itinerary, as long as you do it right.

What you can do:
There are many excellent providers, but to ensure you pick the right one, you need to ask some questions. Are the guides from the township? Is a portion of the fee being returned to the community, either to the individuals involved or to local projects? Where will you stop off on the way? And is there an opportunity to spend money? Local craft stalls, shebeens and food stands are all a great way to give back - ensuring your money goes directly to local entrepreneurs. Some of the local guides may have been deprived of education in the past, and so this exchange between host and guest has sometimes been pivotal for building self-development and self-belief.
To be sure you pick the right township tour, ask if the guides are from the township, and where your money is going. Do your bit to support local entrepreneurs.
For a real cultural exchange and learning experience, you need to take a walking or cycling tour. Soweto is the best-known township, but the cultural heritage of townships like Kathorus and Sharpeville are also of huge importance, although less well known. Uthando in Cape Town is another stunning example of people-led tourism products which lead to genuine, grassroots development projects.

There is also a strong township tourism movement in the KwaZulu-Natal region. Durban's Umlazi township is South Africa's second largest, has a population of more than 800,000 and is developing fast with investment in schools, infrastructure and housing. Throughout Zululand, there are many opportunities for visitors to stay in a traditional Zulu homestead or 'Umuzi'. From early 2014, the famous Hop on Hop Off red bus tours of Cape Town will include the township of Langa on their route, in an effort to entice those who wouldn't normally think outside the bus to jump off when they smell the wonderful street food sizzling, and hear the music calling. This is the result of an ongoing development of social enterprise initiatives within Langa based around jazz, heritage, arts, culture and food. Watch this happening space.
James Fernie, Executive Director, Uthando South Africa:
"The goal of Unthando South Africa is to create a family of people from all around the world with the aim of generating income and other forms of assistance for innovative grassroots projects in the townships of Cape Town as well as other parts of South Africa. The South African government is cutting back on social spending tremendously which has put huge pressure on the capability of projects to perform their work - therefore it has become critical to assist these projects in any way we can. For example, Neighbourhood Old Age Homes is the only organisation catering for the needs of the elderly in a township of a million people in Khayelitsha, and Learn to Earn gives unemployed people the opportunity to learn skills. It is about giving a hand up not a hand out - and it is imperative that they acquire funding".

Learn more about Uthando in this video:
Amanda Marks, co-director of responsible tourism award-winning Tribes Travel:
"A township tour can be one of the most eye-opening and privileged experiences you can have in South Africa. However you must pick who you go with very carefully, otherwise it's just voyeurism and no-one, least of all the township residents, benefit from your visit. Go with a guide who still lives there, and visit projects, shops or restaurants run by local residents so a range of people get a chance at earning something from your presence in their community."

Sally Petersen, from Cape Town-based AWOL Tours:
"Doing a walking or cycling tour through a township is a much better way to interact with the local people. It's not as intimidating - local people walk and use bicycles so it's a mode of transport they can relate to. If you're in a bus, taking photos from the window, you're really alienated from people and they just see you as an outsider. You should also ask which community you're going to and what you'll be doing there. Some tours don't include any stop offs at all, they just go straight through the township."

Fair Trade Tourism

South Africa has been the first country in the world to embrace the principles of Fair Trade into its tourism industry. The holidays which have been certified as Fair Trade range from five star hotels in Cape Town to township tours in Port Elizabeth. A certification scheme, Fair Trade Tourism guarantees fair wages and working conditions, fair sourcing of produce and fair distribution of benefits - and, of course, a respect for human rights. Although Fair Trade Tourism may not be seen by eco purists as the most environmentally stringent of certification schemes, with the focus being more on people - you really can't extract the former from the latter.

People are integral to a fair and fine form of tourism here, not only in terms of creating a decent living wage but also because the only way you preserve the wildlife and habitat is by ensuring that the community is invested in their survival. Common sense and totally fair.

There are many other green certification schemes in South Africa as well, but the good news is that this is one of the few countries in the world to have a National Minimum Standard for Responsible Tourism (NMSRT) which they must all adhere to. What a different tourism industry we would have if other governments followed suit, with guidelines like this South African one: "Tourism can and should deliver income to poor households, particularly those situated in rural parts of our country". Fair enough.

Responsible tourism tips

Conservancies are pieces of land which may either be privately owned or leased from communities, to be used for conservation purposes. Use of the land also benefits the communities which own them. Often with a focus on tourism as well, it is good to support the conservancies which are attached to the national parks, as the amount of protected land is being allowed to grow. Find out more at the National Association of Conservancies and Stewardship South Africa. Some conservancies are used for private hunting expeditions too. Don't overlook Kruger National Park. This is the park most affected by rhino poaching as it borders Mozambique where regulation is less stringent, so the more you support the park, the more money they have for putting anti-poaching rangers on the ground. That's what good safaris do, after all: put money back into conservation. So although it doesn't brand itself as the 'eco' destination, this park does a lot of great under the radar work. KwaZulu-Natal province has the highest density of rhinos in South Africa, and contains the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, world renowned for being the historical home of the Southern white rhino, following a successful programme in the 1950s to bring it from the brink of extinction. However, poaching here, and across the rest of South Africa, of rhino's is still a major (and growing) issue, with many killed daily. You can read more about programmes to help conserve rhinos, and donate, here. It is important to swot up on the complexities of South Africa's history before you go - both recent and further back. As a responsible tourist, the only way you can really understand the present there is to understand the past. It is not a case of 'don't mention the war' at all - people will chat about it, and even if they have differing opinions. The terms White, African and Coloured are used freely here, and it will be hard for you to discuss the past without using local terminology. Of course, at times you will still meet with bitterness and closed thinking - like everywhere in the world - but generally there is a great sense of moving forward. The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is a must-have experience to put things into context. It is not just a tourist museum, it is a place of peace and reconciliation that was created for the people of South Africa to learn, remember and heal. Or, as they say in their own words "The museum is a beacon of hope showing the world how South Africa is coming to terms with its oppressive past and working towards a future that all South Africans can call their own". Powerful stuff. And if in Cape Town, visit the humbling District Six Museum, as well as taking a tour of the ethnically diverse Bo Kaap district with a local guide. Shark cage diving is big in South Africa, though many claim it is responsible for the increase in great white shark attacks. This is because very often the sharks are attracted artificially to the site by throwing chum (dead fish, offal, and blood) into the water. Attracting wild animals in this artificial way can never be responsible in our view, as it disrupts natural behaviour. There are some responsible diving companies, however, which do not use chum, so the shark viewing becomes no more harmful than any other kind of wildlife safari. So if putting yourself into a cage and surrounding yourself with sharks is your thing, always ask your operator if chum is used. To find out more about this practice, read our article here. South Africa - particularly around Stellenbosch and Franschhoek - is squarely on the wine tourism map. There are now some black-owned vineyards which are not always top of the traditional tourist wine routes, but definitely worth seeking out, such as Seven Sisters and Mhudi. Although most people speak English, there are eleven official languages in South Africa. Some rural communities won't speak much English, so it really is worth learning a couple of words in Afrikaans, though in black communities you will get extra kudos and offer extra respect by offering a hello or thank you in the relevant tribal language. Languages are very specific to certain areas so, for example, in the Eastern and Western Cape you are in Xhosa land, while in Limpopo they speak Sepedi or Venda. If volunteering here, it is important to ensure that your volunteering holiday company adheres to strict guidelines. This way, you can check that the work you are doing is actually sustainable and that the needs and expectations of the host community are being well met on every level. And if you are looking for wildlife volunteering, make sure the reserve doesn't double up as a hunting ground. Yes, really. So, all in all, before you volunteer, read and ruminate on these guidelines.
Deidre Luzmore, founder of South Africa's first E-Marketplace for local handmade arts and crafts, MzansiStore: "It drives me mad is when tourists go to places like Green Market Square in Cape Town to buy African goods such as masks and drums, and don't even realise that not only are they not made in South Africa, they aren't even part of our heritage. The drums are usually from Mali and South African ethnic groups are not known for ceremonial wooden carved masks, so these are from other African countries too. Yes, they are authentic African products, but they are not authentic South African products. You can spot real South African beadwork, called Ndebele, by its geometric and diamond shaped design, and it always uses white beads as a background. A lot of the beadwork in markets is imported from Kenya, whose Maasai beadwork is very different in style. Beautiful all the same - but not South African. What is authentic South African are the beaded animal and flower figurines created with much skill and amazing accuracy. So buy those and enjoy them."
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: bikeriderlondon] [Hunts, shoots & leaves: Hp.Baumeler] [Township Tourism: Diriye Amey] [Deidre Luzmore Quote: Maethordaer]