Nation Takes a Role in Ecotourism

Even relations between villages, game reserves have improved as habitats are restored

By: Mary Bolster

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 dollars.

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 with flair.

South African Airways ( 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,, has charmed everyone from President Clinton, who has stayed there twice, to Oprah Winfrey.

In South Africa, CC Africa ( 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 tourism.

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 annually.”

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 eco/adventure travel.

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,” Starace said.

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 middleman.

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 travels.”

The word of mouth from satisfied clients is all you need, Maclaren said.


For general information on ecotourism, check the International Ecotourism Society,; Conservation International, or TourismConcern,

For an extensive list of operators and lodges, go to Ecotravel.

For good examples of “green” companies, Manaca Eco Travel, or Fairmont Hotels,, which publish “The Green Partnership Guide: A Practical Guide to Greening"