CAPE TOWN, South Africa Costa Rica, Belize, Ecuador, Malaysia
and Thailand are well-known for their ecotourism but South Africa
is steadily creeping up on the “green” leaders.
Since it abandoned apartheid, less than 10 years ago, this
ecologically and culturally diverse country has been making up for
lost time. Its first-world infrastructure and third-world social
structure make it ideal for ecotourism: It’s easy to get around and
there are still plenty of communities that can benefit from tourist
Consider, for example, Cape Town.
At first glance, this stunning city at the base of Table
Mountain is the embodiment of luxury. If you stay at the elegant
Cape Grace hotel on the revitalized Victoria and Albert waterfront
and visit the surrounding vineyards, you’d swear you were in Napa
Valley or just outside Sydney.
Scratch the surface, however, and you’ll discover a different,
richer story. The city’s waterfront is a good place to start.
Before the Cape Grace reclaimed it, the area was a dry, abandoned
junkyard. Now, there’s a clean, boat-filled harbor, surrounded by
locally owned shops and businesses. It’s from here that you catch
the ferry to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27
years in prison.
The Cape Grace is also at the forefront of efforts to overcome
the legacy of apartheid. It has an aggressive five-year plan to
recruit and train people from disadvantaged communities, and its
staff is beginning to reflect that commitment. It works with local
tour operators, providing guests with diverse experiences: walking
tours of downtown and visits to the black townships.
Much of rural South Africa is benefiting from responsible
tourism, especially villages that border the country’s many game
parks. Also, a newfound cooperation between local communities and
game reserve owners, who historically have been at odds, has been a
boon to the region’s wild animals.
Much of their original habitat is being restored as communities
agree to lease the land, take down fences and refrain from
poaching. For example, South Africa and neighboring Mozambique
recently agreed to remove a border fence, so that migratory animals
could pursue their natural journeys.
Credit for improved relations must go to Conservation
Corporation Africa, the standard-bearer of ecotourism and
sustainable development in Africa.
Established in 1990, CC Africa launched its reputation by
creating the Phinda Private Game Reserve from more than 42,000
acres of damaged farmland in KwaZula-Natal. Phinda has employed
more people than the cattle farmers, proving that wildlife is more
profitable than anyone expected.
Today, CC Africa operates 30 game lodges in six countries. Each
lodge reflects the principles of sensitive land management and
conservation in a luxurious setting - a dose of altruism served
South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) is still the best way to
get to the country, especially now with its non-stop service to
Johannesburg from New York.
The elegant Cape Grace Hotel, www.capegrace.com, has charmed
everyone from President Clinton, who has stayed there twice, to
In South Africa, CC Africa (www.ccafrica.com) has five game
lodges: Bongani, Kwandwe, Londolozi, Ngala and Phinda.
Ecotourism is on the rise, although it seems no one can agree on
just how much.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the number of American
“nature travelers” is expected to increase to 20 percent from 7
percent over the next decade.
The World Tourism Organization is more optimistic, claiming
eco-tourism already accounts for 20 percent of the world’s
And Conservation International says “nature tourism is
increasing at an annual rate between 10 percent and 30 percent a
year, while overall tourism is growing at a rate of 4 percent
According to research from a 2-year-old self-proclaimed “green”
travel agency, agents are getting much of the ecotourism pie.
Manaca Eco Travel in Washington, D.C., recently distributed a
questionnaire to 501 people and, while 79 percent of the
respondents said they wanted to visit a new place, only 3 percent
listed travel agents as the most influential resource in choosing
How to tap into this growing and potentially lucrative market?
Educate yourself, said Kevin Starace, Manaca’s vice president of
strategic partnerships. “Do a lot of research.”
You’ll learn that ecotourism doesn’t mean backpacker
accommodations nor a backpacker’s budget. “These are high-end
trips. The household income of our average customer is $65,000,”
Although commissions on these trips are the standard 10 to 12
percent, the margin is often higher because the hotels and lodges
usually are family-owned so you aren’t dealing with a
Another reward of booking eco-friendly trips is repeat
customers. “Clients will come back saying, ‘This was the best trip
I’ve ever had,’” said Fergus Tyler Maclaren, director of
international programs at the International Ecotourism Society in
Burlington, Vt. “People come home raving about their trips with
amazing slides that reflect the experiential aspect of their
The word of mouth from satisfied clients is all you need,
For general information on ecotourism, check the International
Ecotourism Society, www.ecotourism.org; Conservation International,
www.ecotour.org or TourismConcern, www.tourismconcern.org.uk.
For an extensive list of operators and lodges, go to Ecotravel.
For good examples of “green” companies, Manaca Eco Travel,
www.manaca.com or Fairmont Hotels, www.fairmont.com, which publish
“The Green Partnership Guide: A Practical Guide to Greening"