With 2017 being the UNWTO International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, I wanted to find out how a Big-5 safari attraction implements sustainable tourism practices and markets these attributes to guests and suppliers. By Des Langkilde.
According to UNWTO, the 2017 theme provides ‘a unique opportunity to raise awareness on the contribution of sustainable tourism to development among public and private sector decision-makers and the public, while mobilising all stakeholders to work together in making tourism a catalyst for positive change’.
With this in mind, I interviewed Vernon Wait, Marketing Director at Lalibela Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa to find answers. Note: TT is Tourism Tattler and VW is Vernon Wait.
TT: Why is sustainable tourism an important component in developing a game reserve?
VW: As custodians of large tracts of a country’s natural resources and cultural heritage, private landowners who operate as commercial enterprises and cater to the needs of tourists have a duty of care – not only to the safety of their guests but also to protect the environment, to manage the resources effectively, to enhance the lives of surrounding communities, and to minimise the impact of their activities on the environment.
TT: How does Lalibela market sustainable tourism to guests?
VW: Seeing as sustainability covers so many aspects, it really is a balancing act. For example, one of our initiatives aimed at enhancing the environment and minimising climate change concerns is to rehabilitate the land by eradicating alien invasive trees, which not only use a lot of scarce water but also change the soil structure and silt up river courses. Obviously, this is a long term project and it does create some unsightly activity. So when guests arrive at Lalibela, we have a short orientation programme where we show a video clip to educate them on the need for, and long-term benefits of, this initiative. In addition, our rangers explain the reasons for this programme during game drives.
TT: What’s your biggest challenge in marketing sustainability?
VW: Well, as I said in answer to your first question, sustainability covers a lot of aspects, many of which happen behind the scenes and are difficult to communicate. But let’s look at each of these in turn.
Firstly, on the safety of guests aspect our public liability insurance complies with the European Community Directive relating to the Package Holidays and Travel Trade Act and includes medical evacuation cover for guests in the unlikely event of an accident while on the reserve. We also ensure that our suppliers have appropriate insurance in place and that they, in turn, ensure that their international clients have travel insurance in place.
Then, on the environment and resource management aspect, we’ve already discussed the land rehabilitation initiative but in addition to this we commissioned a team of game management experts to determine the ideal carrying capacity of game on the reserve, based on the five flora biomes found here and purchased significant numbers of plains game to balance the number of predators that Lalibela has. In fact, Lalibela has the densest population of free-roaming predators in the Eastern Cape.
TT: How do you engage the local community in what you do?
VW: Lalibela plays a vital role in the upliftment of communities surrounding the reserve, especially women. Traditionally, rural women were restricted to menial employment opportunities, which often meant that they migrated to the cities, which in turn lead to breaking up families as children were left behind with grandparents. Being one of the largest employers between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown, and being able to offer career opportunities for women, means that Lalibela has played a significant role in the upliftment of rural women since it first opened in 2002.
Since the sale of Lalibela to new owners, we have purchased significant additional land, and we are in the process of establishing a new 5 room (10-bed) lodge as well as adding 2 rooms (4 beds), which will create still more opportunities for both men and women in the surrounding rural communities. We have a firm policy in place whereby we employ people from the community and will only employ from outside the community if the skills set is not available. Constant training and upliftment also play a role in ensuring a better local skills base.
Read more about the sale of Lalibela.
TT: How do you engage your suppliers in what you do?
VW: Itineraries to Africa can be complicated and require specialised knowledge, so as a safari property Lalibela thinks long term, and we build up strong relationships with suppliers in the belief that we are there to support each other in our respective sustainable tourism goals. Looking forward into this year, we are planning to become a signatory in support of the UNWTO Private Sector Commitment to the UNWTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism. I think that the ethics of social responsibility that are contained in the Code are principles that we should all aspire to uphold.
Download the UNWTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism PDF.
TT: What is unique or innovative about your marketing and communication approach?
VW: We are strong believers in knowledge sharing for the greater good of the tourism industry as a whole. For example just look at the number of articles that we’ve sponsored in your own publication. In addition, our experienced and knowledgeable field guides educate guests on conservation and environmental issues. When guests arrive, they are assigned a guide. The guide not only takes them on game drives but also joins them at evening meals, either in the lodge restaurant or around the open-air boma, to engage in conversation and to answer questions.
We also offer child-friendly safaris at one of our lodges. The children’s game drive has been specially designed for young children, with their own game ranger, Children’s Programme Coordinator, and game-viewing vehicle. There is also a children’s play centre and the accommodation caters to families, as do the meal arrangements.
TT: What have you learned about marketing sustainable tourism so far, what works and what doesn’t?
VW: One thing we don’t do, and I caution anyone in the travel trade reading this not to even try, is to engage in greenwashing. If you’re going to commit to sustainable tourism practices, don’t just create the perception that your products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly – walk the talk – demonstrate your commitment through tangible initiatives and actions, and communicate these outcomes to your communities, to your staff, to your guests, and to your suppliers. Get them involved. Sustainable tourism is not a stand-alone philosophy, it’s a collective aspiration that can only work for the good of people and the planet if we work as one.