TOURISM lecturer at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan’s George Campus Dr Leonie de Witt is breaking new ground following the completion of her thesis on ecotourism in South Africa.
De Witt’s thesis titled An Ecotourism Model for South African National Parks has paved the way for SANParks and South Africa to develop its first ever ecotourism model based on her findings.
Her findings are derived from two surveys she conducted of visitors to SANParks and the one of the management of the institution. De Witt said some of the key findings concerned the ethical behaviour and training of staff at national parks.
“Firstly, visitor respondents rated ethical behaviour as the most important factor. Respondents felt strongly that rules and regulations of national parks should be adhered to and that severe penalties should be implemented in the case of non-compliance.
“Secondly, education and interpretation programmes play a key role in ecotourism. Not only do they create awareness about impacts, they also add a meaningful dimension to the visitor’s experience.
“Thirdly, SANParks should involve local communities,” she said.
“Lastly, respondents rated staff training as ‘extremely important’ in order to uphold excellent service standards. Staff should also be made aware of their impact and the role that they play in terms of tourism and conservation.”
According to De Witt, a tourism product is a package comprising of different tourism experiences or activities.
“An ecotourism product is an experience. It is an experience created by number of factors such as closeness to nature, the opportunity to learn about wildlife nature and the local culture, and/or a physical challenge.
“Typical ecotourism activities include guided games drives or hikes, outdoor sports such as mountain biking, and guided nature photography”.
De Witt said ecotourism is wrongly viewed as tourism that mainly occurs in natural areas. She said the country’s natural resources form the basis of the tourism industry.
“Although nature is one of the key requirements for ecotourism it is not all what ecotourism is about.
“Ecotourism is also about sustainable management practices, conservation, community benefits, creating awareness of environmental issues, promotion of ethical behaviour and fostering an appreciation for nature and local cultures.
“South Africa’s natural resources form the basis of the tourism industry, which attracts millions of local and international tourists annually.
“Tourism is important for its contribution to the GDP and job creation, but if the industry is not developed and managed properly, the impacts can be catastrophic”.
De Witt said minimising negative impacts on the environment remains important in ecotourism.
“It is inevitable that negative impacts will occur with any type of tourism development, but ecotourism implies the responsible or sustainable development and management of tourism to minimise the impacts and ensure the continued existence of our natural and cultural heritage.”
To make George a booming tourism hub, De Witt, who is a relative newcomer to the area, said developing and implementing tourism strategies together with other stakeholders would be the way to up the city’s tourism game.
“Planning and development of tourism strategies in George is not the responsibility of one party only, but should be a collaborative effort involving all stakeholders.
“It is important for every single tourism product provider to understand the needs of tourists in order to satisfy them,” she said.
“Furthermore, industry players should realise the important role they play in creating a favourable image of George as a tourist destination.”