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Thebe Tourism: Lessons Learned from Water Crisis

South Africa can at times be a very reactive country, meaning we seem to wake up very late on critical issues. By Brett Hendricks, General Manager of the Thebe Tourism Group. 

Over many years we have been hearing about the scarce resource that is water. However, we have waited until water restrictions in the Western Cape are at level six before making impactful changes. Thanks to good communication, for example, residential usage has now dropped to 523 megalitres per day – a vast difference to the 1 130 megalitres per day recorded in 2014.

For the tourism industry, it’s about communicating to visitors that Cape Town remains open for business. Tourists are hearing the correct messaging around water from the moment they arrive to the time they leave, ensuring their impact remains low, however, they should know this before they arrive.

The truth of the matter is that the drought in South Africa will have an impact on the economy. The South African tourism sector accounts for over 9% of the country’s GDP. A large portion of this is from visitors to Cape Town. The Western Cape has a challenging road ahead, but we cannot afford the potential loss of income and jobs as a result. We must also remember that the water crisis is not limited to the Western Cape, with the Eastern and the Northern Cape worst hit by the drought. We need to address this at a national level.

This means planning is key. If we had made water our focus five years ago, we wouldn’t be in this situation now. For our sector, and for everyone, the water crisis in the Western Cape is a huge wake-up call. South Africa and even the rest of the world needs to learn from these events. Recycling water and being water-wise will be the new norm for all of us. We need to protect and preserve our country’s water resources for the long-term.

To accomplish this, the tourism industry needs to be taking the bull by the horns. Responsible tourism is not just a box to tick. We can’t afford to be focused purely on money but need to understand the impact of our business on the environment and the surrounding communities. Sustainable tourism shouldn’t be an award one wins at trade events where only a handful of products enter – it should be the base of all entries to qualify as a tourism product, as much as grading is an entry level in some awards and recognition of product.

At home, personally, recycling water has become a very normal way of life. I can easily get by on 50 litres of water a day. Across the Western Cape, people are putting measures in place to reduce their water consumption. Residents and businesses are becoming accustomed to the new way of life, but we need to save more.

The tourism industry, especially, needs to function around the constant improvement and protection of the environment we live in. After all, it is our pristine natural environment that attracts tourists to our shores.

Around the world, recycling, conservation, and environmental initiatives are top of mind. People want to know where their waste goes, and how businesses are conserving and supporting their environments and communities respectively.

It must be known that our tourism industry is open for business. A proactive stance in communication is required, with the elimination of language which creates panic. As long as visitors understand what is required of them, they do not mind complying and will be supportive of our efforts to conserve this vital resource. Our tourism assets bring visitors which, in turn, creates jobs. We must therefore protect and grow this value chain.

Our hospitality industry is responding by decreasing water consumption in hotels. Guests are happily having very short showers and reusing their towels and linens. Swimming pools can easily be maintained with sea water and decent filtration systems.

Our major sites and attractions are no different. Cape Point, for example, has implemented many water-saving measures and reduced consumption dramatically – without turning any visitors away. Signs ask visitors to not waste water, and they are complying. The site is also recycling grey water for flushing toilets and visitors are using waterless hand sanitisers. People are so used to just opening a tap, however, nobody is complaining. It’s just a change of mindset. None of it takes anything away from the experience of visiting Cape Town.

In fact, we can use this opportunity to focus the experience on awareness and conservation. Our industry has woken up now – we need to use this to our advantage to inform not just the rest of the country, but the global market. South Africa isn’t the only country facing a national water crisis. Other countries can learn from us and vice versa, and destinations on the verge of a water crisis certainly will be looking to us for solutions.

With the eyes of the world on us, what are the solutions going forward?

Those who have boreholes, including guest houses in suburbs and small communities, have been sharing this resource with their neighbours and local businesses in order to save municipal supply for the long-term. While not everyone has the means to fund a borehole system at home, it might be worthwhile to look at co-funding such an option with neighbours and sharing the resource. We are all in this together. This is how we start to change the mindset, with “real” responsible tourism being the most important buzzword in the industry.

It’s time we work together as an industry and embrace these changes on a national level. The environment dictates to us, but it also provides solutions. If you have wind and sun, you have electricity. If you have air and clouds, you have water. There are many possibilities for positive change.

 Now is also the time for innovation, one of my favourite words. We have so many bright minds. People are coming up with many great ideas, and innovative products to reduce water usage and make it easier to live with less water.

 We need to make the statement to the world that we got through this and we learned from it. Together, we can build a very sustainable tourism industry.

 Water scarcity is a crisis, but it’s also a big opportunity. It starts with you, and with me, making changes at home. And it continues with every single business in tourism leading the way with innovative, and sustainable solutions.

 We call ourselves a rainbow nation. I hope the rainbow comes out for us. And, if not, I hope we create the solutions we need to continue growing the tourism industry.

 As Nelson Mandela said: “I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses. We must never forget that it is our duty to protect this environment”.

About Thebe Tourism: Thebe Tourism Group is a 100%-owned subsidiary of Thebe Investment Corporation where it forms part of Thebe Services, as one of the four subdivisions to the department. It is the oldest black-empowered South African tourism group with a significant portfolio in tourism and related industries ranging from attractions, inbound and outbound tourism, group travel, car rental, leisure packages and creating new tourism product to drive domestic travel market transformation.