Ecotourism, Green Travel, Sustainable Travel, Responsible Travel — are all terms widely used by tour operators to promote trips to Africa. So how can you separate the marketing from the “real thing”? This guide to being a responsible traveler will help you figure it all out.
Defining “Responsible Travel” or “Sustainable Travel”
Responsible travel allows local communities to earn a fair income from tourism; it supports conservation; it supports local community initiatives; and it tries to limit the environmental impact of the vacation itself.
How do you make sure your trip to Africa is “Responsible” and truly guilt free? Follow the steps below and book a trip to Africa that will offer you a relaxing and adventurous vacation, as well as a chance to benefit the country you are visiting. Being a “Responsible Traveler” in Africa does not mean you have to ride a bike and stay in a mud hut (although I’d recommend a little of that too). You can enjoy a luxury safari and still be “responsible” by ensuring that the company you choose is truly “responsible” in how it operates its lodges and engages with the local community.
What’s the Difference Between Ecotourism and Responsible Travel?
Ecotourism really started the “green travel” trend. Where the focus was on the physical environment and conservation. Tourists wanted to make sure their vacation did not disrupt or damage the local environment. But in the past decade, the term “Sustainable” and “Responsible” travel has been coined to reflect the fact that the people matter as much as the environment and wildlife in Africa.
Involving local communities is in fact an important key to successful conservation efforts. Tourist dollars need to trickle down to local communities that are eking out a living close to wildlife parks, in order to stop poaching of resources.
People going on safari in Africa are also widening their focus beyond just wildlife. Visiting a local school, or going on a walking safari with a Maasai warrior, is just as important as seeing a lion hunt. A trip to Marrakech is not just about admiring the medina and the souks. Visitors are taking cooking courses or visiting local hammams to truly enjoy the local culture and appreciate the Moroccan people, as much as the physical environment.
Throughout Africa, local community involvement is absolutely essential for tourism to be sustainable and successful. And this is what “responsible tourism” aims to promote.
Above all, Just go!
Tourism is the mainstay of many African economies, it supports thousands of local jobs. Just taking a trip to Africa is a good first step. The key is to try and spend your money in the country you are visiting, thereby helping the local economy. If you have paid for your entire trip up front, with all meals included, most of those profits will end up staying with the tour operator. Try and benefit the communities you’re visiting by shopping, eating, traveling, and staying local.
Responsible Travel in Africa — Tip 1: Book With a Responsible Tour Operator
Responsible tour operators specializing in Africa are numerous, my recommendations follow below. The key is to make sure your tour operator is genuinely “responsible” and not just good at marketing. This list should help you make the right choice when planning your trip to Africa. If you are planning an independent trip, read the “How to be a Responsible Traveler” steps that follow.
Can a Luxury Tour be “Responsible”?
The short answer is yes, but only a handful of companies really do this properly.
The high-end tourist brings in lots of money and can really make a difference. A quick visit to an orphanage to soothe the conscience of a $15,000 safari, can easily turn into a client sponsoring a nurse for ten years. This may have more impact than the volunteer who teaches English for 6 months and stays in a local hut. But the luxury tour operator has to pay more attention to the whims of their clients than the needs of the local community. Read my interview with &Beyond for more.
Can a Budget Tour be “Responsible”?
Occasionally a basic hotel will claim it is “eco-friendly” because it has no electricity, and the bathroom is a pit latrine in the back. Beware of this. But most budget tours do a great job of spreading their dollars directly to the local community by shopping at local markets, staying in locally owned hotels and eating at local restaurants. Part of being a “Responsible Traveler” is making sure that local communities directly benefit from your visit.
If you find a “deal” be sure the tour operator is not cutting costs in areas that you would not agree with.
A cheaper Kilimanjaro trek for example can mean that the operator has cut porter salaries in order to protect its bottom line.
Many of the lodges, tour companies and properties that work with local communities, conservation organizations, and practice responsible tourism are linked to through the organizations below:
- In Kenya – Ecotourism Kenya
- In Ethiopia – TESFA
- In Uganda – Pearls of Uganda
- In Southern Africa – (South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi) – Sustainable Tourism Network
- In South Africa – Fair Trade in Tourism
- In Ghana – Nature, Conservation Research Center
- North Africa — In Morocco and Tunisia you can book your own hotels by e-mail and use local transport to get around. Egypt has such a classic set tour itinerary that almost every tour company follows, so try a tour that gets you off the beaten track, check out Earthfoot.org.
- There are numerous small-scale, local tour companies that have excellent records when it comes to responsible travel in Africa. For example, Andulela in Cape Town, or Jolinaiko Tours in West Africa. Here are some of the larger companies with offices in Europe and/or the US.
Responsible Travel to Africa — Tip 2: Stay in Locally Owned and/or Eco-Hotels
How do you make sure your hotel or lodge in Africa follows “responsible” guidelines? Many mainstream hotel booking sites list chain hotels first. Spend an extra five minutes to see if there’s a hotel that isn’t a Hilton, Sheraton or other major chain, with its headquarters based out of Africa (where the profits go). Book a hotel that is locally owned and run. There are usually good bed and breakfasts or guest houses offering a similar level of service to the big chains.
The service will be more personal and you’ll often get better “insider” tips on what to see and do.
Booking Local/Small Hotels in Africa
Trying to book a guesthouse or small hotel in sub-Saharan Africa is not always easy given the lack of web sites, or an inability to accept credit cards. But most smaller hotels do have an e-mail address and they are listed in guidebooks like the Lonely Planet and Bradt guides. I always e-mail hotels directly to make reservations, and have never run into any problems on arrival. Reading reviews on TripAdvisor is an invaluable tool to find out what the small hotel is like. A change of management can drastically improve or destroy a small hotel, so getting a current review is important. Search for the location you need a hotel in, and check out the B&B or Specialty Lodging sections, it’s a goldmine for smaller, locally owned hotels.
Luxury Lodges and Hotels
You can still enjoy luxury if you stay in a Riad in Morocco, or a luxury eco-lodge in Kenya. It’s a simple matter to check if the lodge or safari camp is eco-friendly, buys from local farmers/markets, and supports/employs the community that lives nearby.
Those factors will have more impact than re-filling a pool every now and again.
In Kenya there are some very nice luxury safari camps that are built on local community lands, where the profits are shared. These conservancies have really helped benefit both wildlife and local communities, read more.
South Africa is filled with eco-friendly hotels, lodges, farms and B&B’s. The range is extensive from the amazing Grootbos Garden Lodge to the simple Tsalanang Township B&B.
Useful Eco-Hotel Listings in Africa
Throughout sub-Saharan Africa – Responsible Travel has a good directory of hotels in Africa listings include properties in: Gambia, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania and Zanzibar.
Throughout sub-Saharan Africa – World Twitch – A birding site, that lists the best lodging in Africa, lots of farms, small guesthouses and luxury eco-lodges. Some links don’t work, try and Google the property if that’s the case.
South Africa – Fair Trade in Tourism’s Hotel Listing
South Africa – Eco-friendly accommodation list from SA Venues.
Egypt – Ecolodge Listing by It’s a Green Green World.
Ghana – Guesthouses and small hotel listings.
For more hotel listings, check the web sites of responsible tour companies, they’ll list the accommodations they use and will have vetted to make sure their practices are in line with their own ethical standards.
4 of 9 Responsible Travel to Africa — Tip 3: Eat in Local Restaurants, Learn to Cook
Eating in a local restaurant is a no-brainer when visiting places like Cape Town and Marrakech, where wonderful restaurants are abundant. But if you’re spending a few nights in Nairobi, Accra or Kigali, don’t be tempted to eat all your meals in the hotel restaurant. Get out and explore the local cuisine.
While few African capitals offer gourmet fare, many have very good restaurants serving local dishes.
No need to head for the local Italian (unless you’ve been without for a few months), just ask the hotel manager where s/he would dine out. Read up on local specialties before you go. Many East African cities have excellent Indian restaurants for example. Always sample the local beer and wine, it’s one of the joys of traveling. I have been wonderfully surprised by Rwandan beer, Tunisian wine, and cannot spend a day without chewing on some biltong when in Southern Africa.
Of course you want to avoid any stomach issues as you get used to new spices and oils, so start off slowly. If you are sampling street food, make sure it’s cooked well and try to avoid salads and fruits that may be washed with untreated water. More about — Food and Drink in Africa.
Take a Cooking Course While on Vacation in Africa
There are culinary vacations in Morocco for example that include a stay in a local Riad, shopping in markets for ingredients and lessons from locally trained chefs. South Africa is becoming a culinary destination for foodies from around the world.
But you don’t have to limit yourself to the haute cuisine of the Winelands, you can also try a one day cooking course in a township. A small Tanzanian safari operator offers a Tanzanian cooking safari, combining wildlife viewing with a chance to practice local recipes.
Many smaller hotels throughout Africa offer a chance for the curious cook to walk into the kitchen and find out how local dishes are made. Exchanging recipes and sharing a love of food is a great way to connect. In Ghana small hotels can arrange a cooking workshop with ladies from a local community. Mixing a little fufu is wonderful way to immerse yourself in the local culture, and build up your biceps at the same time.
5 of 9 Responsible Travel to Africa — Tip 4: Shop in Local Markets, Take a Craft Tour
A simple way to be a responsible traveler in Africa, is to shop locally. Help the local economy by shopping in markets and stores around town. Buy your gifts from traders and artists directly. Get some clothes tailored locally. Enjoy bargaining for trinkets, it’ll help your local language skills. Visiting a market or souq is one of the most enjoyable things you can do on vacation in Africa. Whether its immersing yourself in the medina of Fes in Morocco and buying a lamp, or getting sandals made at a Maasai market in Tanzania, you’ll love the experience.
If you are unsure of your bargaining skills, or find the hustle a bit over-bearing, most African capitals will have a government or privately sponsored arts and craft shop that sells crafts from all over the country at fixed prices. Just ask your operator, or hotel staff for directions.
Buy Direct from the Artists
If you really enjoy arts and crafts, try to include a visit to a village where crafts are made, and get to meet the artists themselves. There are many communities throughout the continent which specialize in their own unique crafts. For example in Zimbabwe, there’s Tengenenge Village, inhabited by sculptors and their families, all dedicated to creating beautiful Shona sculpture.
Craft villages outside of Kumasi in Ghana offer visitors the chance to try their hand at Adinkra printing, pot making, Kente weaving, brass casting and bead-making. (See sample tour).
Take a Craft Tour
Whether you are an experienced artist or not, a craft tour will certainly get your creative juices flowing and they offer a truly authentic experience.
There are lots of choices out there, examples of craft tours in Africa include:
Weaving Tour in Morocco – Ingrid Wagner, a textile designer/maker, global traveler, and language teacher, offers small-group travel to Morocco. Participants learn how to weave, knot, and embroider in the Moroccan rug-making tradition; visit local dyeing and spinning workshops; and create their own pieces of work. Craft Tour of South Africa – Nancy Crow offers an arts and crafts tour in South Africa. The tours are designed to take visitors off the beaten path to discover the textiles, arts, and crafts of the regions; small groups of travelers meet local people in their homes and studios and visit colorful markets.
Ashanti Craft and Community Tour – A tour of Ghana’s crafting communities, a chance to find out how kente cloth is made, pottery, beads, markets and a little drumming to top it off. Textile Tour of South Africa led by African Threads founder, Valerie Hearder. This two week tour takes in the best of KwaZulu-Natal’s rich crafting heritage, and moves along the coast to end in Cape Town. The tours fill up quickly, and they are now accepting reservations for 2014. Of course there are plenty of opportunities to try your hand at a little crafting, weaving or pottery without taking an official tour. You can try your hand at a little batik in Ziguinchor, Senegal; or spend a day crafting in Cape Town.
If this is all too hands on, you can always just appreciate the mastery of the leather workers at the Fes tannery, in Morocco, or the Cedi Bead factory in Ghana’s Volta region.
6 of 9 Responsible Travel to Africa — Tip 5: Minimise Your Carbon Footprint
Part of being a “Responsible traveler” is to leave as light a carbon footprint as possible. For many destinations in Africa, a long haul flight is unavoidable. Most of the major airlines now run their own carbon offset programs, KLM for example, is making strides in this field. There are several online web sites where you can calculate the carbon offsets you would need to purchase to cover your trip.
Make sure you purchase Gold Standard carbon offsets and read the David Suzuki Foundation’s article for more on this topic.
Take a Direct Flight
The general lack of direct flights to many African destinations (especially from North America) makes this option almost impossible. However, if you can limit the puddle jumpers, try and do so. Business travelers in particular can make efforts in their scheduling so they’re not flying back and forth repeatedly. Given the state of the roads in many countries in Africa, flying is often the most efficient way to get around, but there are plenty of countries with a decent railway system and bus network.
Use Local Transport
Using local transport is a great way to experience Africa and its better for the environment. If you’ve booked a luxury safari, it’s unlikely you will be using local transport at any time. But for other trips find out what the local transport options are like. If you are visiting a country like Morocco, Egypt, or Tunisia, train travel is safe and reliable.
The networks are decent, there is really no need to rent a car or driver, unless you’re heading towards the desert. South Africa also has a fine network of luxury coaches that travel everywhere and the World Cup brought better transport options within the cities.
Ride a Bike
If you are really concerned with your environmental impact when traveling in Africa, you could check into a cycling holiday. Traveling by bike is a wonderful way to experience the “real” Africa. See more about — Cycling in Africa.
Walking Tours and Safaris
If you’re on safari in Africa, you’ll soon get tired of spending hours in a vehicle. Outside of the National Parks there are always options for a nature walk with a knowledgeable local guide. Spare some gas and go walkabout. Even better, opt for a walking safari. The best ones are in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park.
If you’re visiting a city or town, stretch your legs and explore on foot, it makes for a much more spontaneous and interesting vacation.
7 of 9 Responsible Travel to Africa — Tip 6: Mix it Up With the Locals, Volunteer
Traveling responsibly in Africa includes respecting the local culture and keeping an open mind. Make an effort to meet people that are not getting paid by you to guide them, carry your luggage, and serve you food. They’re working and will often give you an answer they think you would like to hear. Mix it up by either volunteering some of your time and helping out with a community initiative, or spend time with traditional cultures while on safari.
And just talk to regular people on the train, or in a shop about issues that affect us all — local politics, soccer, education, children, in-laws. You’ll find a lot of common ground.
There are lots of options to volunteer for a few days, a week or several months in Africa that can all be added on to your vacation. The very nature of these programs means you will automatically be eating, sleeping and shopping locally. Africa does not lack labor, and unemployment is extremely high, so expect to pay a program fee for your experience. Find out more about volunteering in Africa and family volunteer vacations.
In both Southern and East Africa you are likely to meet members of traditional tribes, especially when you are on safari. The Maasai, Samburu, and Himba are all nomadic pastoralists whose traditional land use has been affected by the establishment of wildlife parks and reserves. The relationship between the two is complicated to say the least, and will become more so if they do not see any benefits of having tourists drive around gazing at lions who tend to eat their cattle.
So, spend at least an afternoon with traditional Maasai, visit their kraals, buy some necklaces, support a clinic.
In Southern Africa, the Kalahari is home to various hunter-gatherer tribes, collectively known as “San” or “Basarwa”. Tanzania’s Hadzabe tribe follow a similar lifestyle. These traditional hunter-gatherers have also lost land to farms and wildlife reserves. They are seen as “backward” by their own governments and have little power. You can help. As a tourist, the more interest you show in wanting to learn about these cultures, the stronger their voice will be.
Dig a Little Beyond the Surface
It took me just a few hours after landing in Morocco to discover that Arabic was not the first language of my taxi driver, but Tamazight. And referring to his culture as “Berber” instead of Amazigh, basically meant I was calling him a barbarian. When you dig beyond the surface in Africa, you discover a hugely rich tapestry of language, arts and culture. There are thousands of linguistic groups and unique cultures in Africa, it’s not just limited to traditional tribes. South Africa for example is filled with fascinating cultures that you will only begin to comprehend if you get out of your hotel or safari lodge and head into the townships and rural countryside. Taking a craft tour or culinary vacation is a wonderful way to get a taste of cultural variety.
8 of 9 Responsible Travel to Africa — Tip 7: Pack for a Good Cause
Thinking of bringing gifts, or donating to a school while traveling to Africa? Please consider this list so you can give responsibly. It’s important for visitors to respect the community they are giving to, and aim to give in a sustainable manner. The last thing you want to do is perpetuate a cycle of dependency, encourage corruption, or burden a community you are trying to help.
Travelers Philanthropy, a project of the Center for Responsible Travel, has come up with an excellent set of guidelines to help you navigate the best way to give your valuable money and time, so everyone benefits.
Bringing Gifts and Toys
If you are bringing supplies or toys, give them to the head of the school or clinic. You will rarely have enough toys for all the kids and it will just lead to disappointment. Make sure you arrive with a prior appointment so you don’t disrupt the routine. Ask what is needed most before you go. I have a mental image of schools along the main safari route in Kenya enjoying 3000 smiley faced balls from Target, but lacking pencils. Your tour operator should be able to organize a visit and many fund and support schools themselves.
Bringing School Supplies
Old computers are quite useless if there’s intermittent electricity, no internet, no technician, no lab and no one to train pupils how to use them. Supplies like pencils and school notebooks can always be used, but first check with the school you are visiting. There may be supplies you can buy locally that they need more urgently.
School uniforms for example, are a huge expense for many African families and kids cannot attend school without them. Whatever you decide to bring or buy, hand it to the head of school, not the children directly.
Bringing Candy and Trinkets
Nothing wrong with sharing sweets if you’re eating them, but don’t bring them with the purpose of handing them out to local kids. Rural African children have little access to dental care. Also, you would never just hand out candy to kids you don’t know at home. They may have dietary issues, their parents may not want you to give their kids sweets. You will turn kids into beggars and rob them of their self-esteem. There are plenty of villages around Africa where at the first sight of a tourist, the yells for “bon bons” or “give me pen” are deafening. It’s not a great relationship.
Financing a School, Orphanage, or Medical Center
The local community has to be involved in every stage of a project that plans to build or finance a school, orphanage or medical center. If you wish to donate your money or time, go through a local charity or organization that is already established in the area with maximum participation by community members. If the community has no stake in a project, it will fail to be sustainable. Your tour operator should be able to help you locate projects in the area you will be visiting.
9 of 9 Responsible Travel to Africa — Tip 8: Help Promote a Positive Image of Africa
Africa needs marketing to combat what people see in the news. You can really help promote a positive image of Africa by telling others back home about your trip. Tourism is the mainstay for many African economies, it supports thousands of local jobs. When Kenya experienced problems during their 2007/8 elections, it took the tourism sector years to bounce back. This is despite the fact that barely any of the tourist areas were affected by the disturbances.
Of course safety is a big concern for anyone planning a vacation, but Africa’s reputation as an unsafe, poverty stricken destination is unfair for the vast majority of the continent.
Help Promote a Balanced View of Africa
The way many people perceive regular daily life in Africa is not even close to reality. If you can show your friends and family back home photos of people going about their daily business, market places filled with traders, and stalls piled high with food, you’ll already be doing your job as “responsible traveler”. Take videos of churches filled with song and kids running home for lunch in their smart school uniforms.
Yes, there is lots of poverty in Africa, but that doesn’t automatically mean there is misery. I’ve seen more smiling faces and genuine joy coming from barefooted children in Tanzania and Malawi, than from my kids classmates at school in New York. The key is to help promote a balanced view of Africa. If you happen to be in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, of course the Genocide Memorial Museum will be a main attraction, but don’t ignore the vitality you will feel in this pleasant, clean little city.
Encourage Friends and Family to Visit Africa
Some destinations in Africa are easier to sell than others. The fine wines and world class restaurants in the beautiful Cape Winelands beats anything that Napa Valley or the Loire Valley has to offer. Pictures of the Serengeti, the Victoria Falls and other top destinations in Africa will make all your Facebook fans swoon with envy. Keep posting them.
Don’t Be Afraid to Go to Africa
There are so many different vacations on offer in Africa, there will always be something to suit you. If you are a woman and concerned about traveling alone in Africa, read these tips. If you are unsure about traveling to a developing country, read these tips. If you are worried about the dangers of traveling in Africa, read these tips.