"Ecotourism", "green travel", "sustainable travel" and "responsible travel" - all of these terms are widely used to sell trips to Africa. So how can you separate the marketing speech from the real deal?
Responsible travel allows local communities to earn a fair income from tourism, supports conservation and tries to limit the environmental impact of the vacation itself. Being a responsible traveler in Africa does not mean that you have to ride a bike and stay in a mud hut (although a little of both are recommended). You can enjoy a luxury safari and still be responsible by ensuring that the company you choose is ethical in how it operates its lodges and engages with the local community.
The trend for ethical travel started with ecotourism, which focuses on the physical environment and conservation. In the past decade, the term "sustainable" or "responsible" travel was coined to reflect the belief that the people of Africa matter as much as its environment and wildlife. In fact, involving local communities is often key to the success of many conservation efforts. For example, villagers living on the edge of a national park are more likely to condemn poaching within their community if they are given the training needed to earn an income as a safari guide.
One of the key concepts of responsible travel is to try and spend your money in the country you're 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.
Step 1: Book With a Responsible Tour Operator
Many Africa tour operators claim to offer responsible travel itineraries. If you plan on using one, the key is to make sure that they're genuine and not just good at marketing.
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 as part of a $15,000 safari can easily turn into a client sponsoring a nurse for 10 years. However, many luxury tour operators place their clients' wishes over the needs of the community - for example, booking stays in 5-star hotels with three swimming pools and a spa when the local people are suffering from crippling drought. Responsible operators choose tours, hotels and restaurants that are as low impact and as beneficial to the local community as possible.
Can a Budget Tour be Responsible?
Often budget hotels will claim that they are "eco-friendly" because they have 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. If you find an itinerary that's much cheaper that its competitors, make sure the tour operator is not cutting costs in areas you wouldn't agree with. For example, a low-cost Kilimanjaro trek may mean that the operator has cut porter salaries in order to protect its bottom line.
When choosing an operator, a good resource for all trips and tours is Responsible Travel.com.
Step 2: Stay in Locally Owned 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.
How to Book Small Hotels in Africa
Trying to book a guesthouse or small hotel in sub-Saharan Africa is not always easy if they don't have a website or can't accept online payments. But most smaller hotels do have an e-mail address and they are listed in guidebooks like Lonely Planet and Bradt. Use the address to contact the hotel directly and arrange your stay. 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 undermine a small hotel, so getting a current review is important. Search by location, then select the B&B or Specialty Lodging boxes to filter your results into a list of smaller, locally owned hotels.
Luxury Lodges and Hotels
There are some excellent luxury options with a small footprint and good ethics, including traditional riads in Morocco and luxury guesthouses in South Africa. 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. Kenya is famous for luxury safari camps that are built on local community lands, where the profits are shared. These conservancies have really benefited both the wildlife and the people that live nearby.
Step 3: Eat in Local Restaurants
Eating in a local restaurant is a no-brainer when visiting places like Cape Town and Marrakesh 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. Read up on regional specialties before you go then ask your hotel manager for their recommendation on where to eat. To avoid any stomach issues as you get used to new spices and oils, 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. Lastly, don't forget to order a bottle of the local beer to wash your meal down with.
Step 4: Shop in Local Markets and Take Craft Tours
A simple way to be a responsible traveler in Africa is to help the economy by shopping locally. Buy your gifts from traders and artists directly. Get clothes tailored locally. Try bargaining for trinkets - it's fun and it'll help your local language skills too. Whether you're browsing lamps in the ancient medina of Fez or getting sandals made at a Maasai market in Tanzania, these are the experiences that make your time abroad special. If you are unsure of your bargaining skills or find the hustle of the marketplace a bit overwhelming, most African capitals will have a government or private arts and crafts shop that sells products 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 they are made and meet the artists themselves. There are many communities throughout the continent which specialize in their own unique crafts. For example, Tengenenge Village in Zimbabwe is 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. Some tour operators offer whole itineraries dedicated to discovering a country's specific crafts.
Step 5: Minimize 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 but there are ways to minimize your footprint once you get there.
Fly as Directly as Possible
If you're traveling from North America, it may be difficult to find a direct flight to your chosen African destination. 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 African countries, flying is often the most efficient way to get around, but there are plenty of nations with a decent railway system or bus network.
Use Local Transport
Using local transport can be great way to experience Africa and it's definitely better for the environment. If you book 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 and there is really no need to rent a car or driver unless you're heading towards the desert. South Africa also has a good network of long-distance coaches - although be careful of using public taxis and trains.
Cycling & Walking Safaris
Step 6: Spend Time With Local People
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 to guide you, carry your luggage or serve you food. There are many different ways to do this. Ask about visiting a traditional village while on safari, or consider volunteering some of your time and helping out with a community initiative. Learning a few simple phrases of the local language before you travel is a really good idea, too. It helps to break down social and cultural barriers and the people you meet will appreciate the effort.
If you want to spend some time volunteering while on vacation there are lots of projects to choose from lasting anywhere from a few days to several months. By definition, you will be eating, sleeping and shopping locally while contributing to the local community in a more tangible way as well. For more information, read our article about meaningful short-term volunteer opportunities.
Village Visits & Township Tours
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 the benefits of having tourists drive around in search of the lions who tend to eat their cattle. By paying to visit their villages, you provide some income and also have the opportunity to learn more about their age-old cultures.
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. In South Africa, township tours to informal settlements like Soweto or Khayelitsha give an insight into the country's turbulent political past while also providing hope for the future.
Step 7: Pack For a Good Cause
Thinking of bringing gifts or donating to a school while traveling through Africa? Please consider this list so you can give responsibly. It's important for visitors to respect the community they are giving to and 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. For school visits, make sure you arrive with a prior appointment so you don't disrupt the routine.
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. The following paragraphs are based on those guidelines as well as our personal observations.
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 or their parents may not want them eating 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.
Step 8: Encourage Friends and Relatives to Travel There Too
Tourism is the main source of income for many African economies, but the continent needs positive marketing to combat what people see in the news. You can help promote tourism by telling others back home about your trip. Of course safety is a concern (for some destinations more than others) but Africa's reputation as a dangerous, poverty-stricken place is unfair for the vast majority of the continent.
Help Promote a Balanced View of Africa
The way many people perceive daily life in Africa is not even close to reality. Yes, there is poverty in Africa, but that doesn't automatically mean there is misery. Many visitors are astonished by the smiling faces and genuine joy they see in some of Africa's poorest rural villages. If you can show your friends and family back home photos of people going about their daily business - market places filled with traders, stalls piled high with food, churches filled with congregants and kids running home for lunch in their smart uniforms - you'll already be doing your job as responsible traveler.
This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on February 20 2019.