Africa

Licence to thrill

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Three years ago, Botswana introduced a nationwide ecotourism certificate system to encourage tour operators to become more sustainable. But has it worked?

 

Africa is home to many wonderful clichés. Mention the continent and wildebeest, lions, giraffes and elephants spring to mind, wandering in groups or chasing something across the dry landscapes with safari jeeps in the distance, packed with excited tourists. Of this Botswana is a classic example; a landlocked country in southern Africa, roughly the size of France, where animals roam freely in what is an Eldorado of national parks. But as elsewhere in Africa, the wear and tear of visitors is taking its toll on the ecology. Which is why Botswana, luckily, is taking steps to preserve it.

There is much worth protecting. Among the attractions is the famous Okavango Delta – one of the world’s largest inland deltas, and a rare water source for nearby animals, with buffalos, giraffes, crocodiles, leopards, antelopes and zebras making it a scene of spectacular wildlife. In the north is the Chobe National Park, whose riverfront is famous for its large concentration of elephants and cape buffalos, and an estimated 460 bird species. Further south lies the Central Kalahari Game Reserve; the world’s second largest wildlife reserve, with bushes, grass and large tree areas covering the sand dunes, and animals such as giraffes, warthogs, leopards and lions gracing the habitat.

Preserving these places makes sense to Botswana. Although it has built one of Africa’s most dynamic economies since gaining independence in 1966 – the country was previously known as the British protectorate of Bechuanaland – their reliance on diamond mining, which accounts for more than a third of GDP, caused finances to tumble amid the global recession in 2009. Investment in ecotourism, a steadily growing industry, can take weight off the diamond industry and, Botswana’s government believes, preserve the environment, stimulate businesses and boost the investment in local communities. Considering the country is 38 per cent covered by national parks and wildlife management areas, turning a blind eye to their condition would be fiscal suicide.

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The chief principles of Botswana’s ecotourism drive were announced in 2002 – complimenting a more wide-ranging tourism initiative started in 2000 – but the foundations had been built through a series of bills years earlier. Laws had been created in relation to nature conservation (1992), waste management (1998), and national monuments and relics (2001). For a country that already practiced high quality, low volume tourism, a major ecotourism initiative made sense.

And so it came in 2009. Based on the national strategy implemented in 2002, Botswana introduced an eco-certification system to which tour operators and hotels can apply. There are three levels; ‘Green’, ‘Green +’ and – the highest accolade – ‘Ecotourism’, all which are awarded by a Quality Assurance Committee after a thorough nine-step application process involving self-assessment and on-site inspection. The reward is a logo, official approving their green efforts. The goals of the system, the tourism ministry says, are to minimise the social, culture and environmental side-effects of tourism, maximise the involvement of local communities and increase re-investment into conservation efforts.

So is that happening? “Some small progress has been made,” says Dawn Parr, UK representative for the Botswana Tourism Board. “You have to accept that it’s a large country with very few people in it who are very dispersed. Although we try to make sure the villages and the people living in the outlying areas get as much help as possible, it’s not always easy. However there are several cultural tourism facilities that have opened up, particular around the traditional areas.” Some of these have seen locals become involved in building campsites and train to guide visitors. Elsewhere, a camel safari has opened up. “It’s very small things, and they’re just starting to get it going,” Parr says. “Obviously the challenge is to market these things and get people to go there.”

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The actual criteria for certification are demanding. To help operators conform to the requirements, Botswana in 2008 produced a practice manual, which guides applicants through around 200 criteria. Despite that, however, 15 resorts have so far earned certificates, with only one hotel, the Chobe Game Lodge – which recycles its waste on-site and crunches waste glass into building blocks – having achieved the ‘Ecotourism’ award.

Yet such demands can only heap credibility upon this trying industry. In addition, Parr says, several lodges already followed green principles before the certification criteria came in place. Many are now close to fulfilling these, and when they do, those left behind may feel pressure to follow the same path. “That will start to become more obvious in about 18 months or two years when people start to get the certificate,” she says. “At the moment, having something that says ‘ecotourism’ is new, and although people were working towards it, they haven’t quite seen the benefits. Once tourists see that they are able to look on our website and see which facilities have got the grading, it is going to become a lot more important to people.”

Photos: Pichugin Dmitry, Pal Teravagimov, Etienne Volschenk [all via Shutterstock.com].

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