Tourism and its vital impact on Conservation in South Africa

With the celebration of cross-border checks and the wearing of masks in public now no longer being compulsory one might be loath to read anything to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, but rest assured this article uses it merely as an example with the hindsight of the great damage that can be done to conservation in this country when tourism is affected so severely. I have been writing recently about the great importance of tourism in South Africa, from an economic standpoint and how it plays such a significant role in our trade and industry, as well as our hospitality industry and the rural communities that surround and support our wildlife conservation areas. It seems only fitting then that we should look at the vital impact that tourism (or the lack of it) can have on the entire conservation infrastructure in our country, from tour operators to lodges, to private preservation efforts, to the national wildlife preservation efforts initiated by Government.

Some facts and figures 

Due to the recent slump in the tourism industry, it is difficult to get up-to-date figures but going way back to 2013 wildlife-based ecotourism was estimated to be worth approximately R323 billion annually to South Africa’s GDP, much of which contributed directly toward the management of protected areas. Because of the damage that was done by the COVID pandemic to both tourism, and in turn conservation, it will be a while before these figures can be freshly estimated. Suffice to say it is a massive contributor to the fiscus and can never be ignored.

From information fed to us just post the worst of the covid period, according to a very enlightening article, I read at the time from GVI “The revenue generated from tourism helps governments to justify the protection of wildlife habitat. These funds contribute towards expenses like staff salaries, diversifying and strengthening the local economies, anti-poaching units, as well as contributing to food security and poverty alleviation through upliftment projects in the local communities. Nationally owned and run areas account for over 3.75 million hectares of wildlife environments across South Africa. When you bring the privately-owned protected areas into the mix, this is another 200 million hectares in the country that still require income”.

In essence, without tourism, our conservation efforts would simply cease to exist on the scale that they do now and the massive hospitality sector that feeds off, but also supports, this industry would just collapse. To substantiate my point, we need to look at the impact the recent COVID pandemic had on our tourism and the knock-on effect that tourism’s collapse had on conservation.

A positive that soon turned negative

At the outset, the pandemic seemed to point to some positive aspects of people not interfering in nature. We saw blue skies over Beijing and clear waters in Venice for the first time in years and even some Asian countries, such as China and Vietnam, restricted their wildlife trade so it was hoped that if this became more sustainably regulated and enforced, it could result in reduced poaching events in Africa that supply these Asian markets.

But to illustrate the vital importance of tourism itself on conservation in our country, because of the huge impact of COVID on tourism the positive aspects of the pandemic soon turned into a very negative impact on conservation in Africa. The funds generated by tourism, which go to support some 23 million livelihoods in South Africa all but dried up during this dreadful period.

The impact was devastating, as the GVI article written at the time went on to say, “The unfortunate reality is that without international revenue being directly injected into South Africa’s conservation sectors through ecotourism and even hunting, the biodiversity of our wildlife and the protection of their habitats is at serious risk. With lower conservation capacities and increased threats to wildlife and ecosystems, all the positive outcomes during the lockdown will all be for nothing!”

Tourism alone won’t cut it

I don’t think we need a more positive illustration than this, of the important role that tourism plays in conservation in South Africa, but as absolutely vital as the tourism industry may be to the ecotourism sectors, we should always remember that we need to stand together as a country to preserve this national treasure. The “Big 5” is not only a magnificent to see but has significant symbolic value internationally.

The efforts of everyone from the private individual that can afford a monthly stipend to support conservation efforts and who chooses to have a local bush-break vacation – to massive internationally-based corporates that choose Africa as their annual conference venue – and everyone in between – all contribute to make a difference. Certainly, it is around the tourism industry that ecotourism turns, but it is only thanks to the public, private sector and Government support that your grandchildren will also enjoy our most precious asset – our wildlife!LIDIA FOLLI



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