Embracing ESG and Sustainability: A Pathway to a Thriving South African Tourism Industry

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by Deborah O’Connor of Emergent Africa

The South African landscape has long been recognised for its breathtaking landscapes, diverse wildlife, and vibrant cultural heritage. Tourism is an important sector for South Africa’s economy and is a major source of foreign exchange earnings for South Africa. It contributes significantly to the country’s GDP, providing revenue that can be reinvested in various sectors of the economy. Tourism has the potential to create jobs across various sectors, stimulate the economy through infrastructure investment, boost the growth of SMMEs by providing a platform and market for products and services and promoting cultural diversity and inclusivity within the country.

In recent years, the sector has faced growing pressure to address environmental, social, and governance (ESG) concerns and embrace sustainable practices. The importance of ESG to companies within the tourism industry can be clearly seen in areas such as customer acquisition and retention, managing risks and regulations, gaining access to sustainable finance or managing investor relations.

Current challenges demand a comprehensive sustainable business model – one which places sustainability at the core of the corporate strategy, business practices and operations. This article explores the importance of ESG and sustainability in the South African tourism industry and highlights the initiatives being undertaken to ensure its long-term viability.

Environmental Conservation Efforts

South Africa’s unique biodiversity and natural resources are at the heart of its tourism appeal. To protect these assets, the industry has been actively engaged in various environmental conservation efforts. For instance, many tour operators have adopted sustainability practices, such as implementing waste management initiatives, incorporating energy efficiency measures and renewable technologies into their portfolios and supporting wildlife conservation projects. Additionally, hotels, resorts and lodges have implemented sustainable water and wastewater management systems in an attempt to be resource efficient. Tourism operators are also beginning to understand their carbon footprint associated with their operations and are becoming accountable for reducing their emissions. To achieve a circular economy and sustainable resource management, operators must actively promote the development of multi-stakeholder systems with suppliers, local community and customers.

Community Empowerment and Social Responsibility

The South African tourism industry recognises the significance of community empowerment and social responsibility and the benefits that this can have on the quality of life of communities living adjacent to tourism operations or protected areas. The concept of a just transition in the context of South Africa is particularly relevant when discussing community participation and ownership in tourism operations. A just transition refers to a planned and equitable shift from an economy heavily reliant on industries that have negative environmental and social impacts toward a more sustainable and inclusive economy. In SA, this often relates to transitioning away from industries reliant on fossil fuels toward sectors like tourism that offer more sustainable economic opportunities. The creation of partnerships where local communities not only actively participate in the management of tourism activities, but also have a stake/ownership in the operation, not only aligns with the idea of a just transition but also contributes to inclusive economic growth and social development.

Economic and socio-economic development initiatives play a crucial role in the context of tourism operations in South Africa. Tourism can be a powerful tool for poverty alleviation, education and skills development/transfer, implementation of healthcare programmes and community involvement including the co-creation of development plans. Jobs can, for example, be also created through the protection of natural resources, including, removal of invasive species, anti-poaching programmes, wetland protection and erosion control etc.

The development of enterprises for the inclusion of locally sourced products and services, into the operator’s supply chain, can further enhance development. By involving local communities in tourism activities, the industry aims to create a sense of ownership and ensure the equitable distribution of benefits. In addition, a sustainable approach to tourism development ensures the long-term socio-economic benefits of tourism and promoting responsible tourism practices, South Africa can ensure that tourism continues to benefit society.

In addition, public private partnerships (PPPs) are good vehicles for government institutions to increase its tourism infrastructure to gain a competitive edge over other tourism destinations. In addition to attracting capital, PPPs allow state institutions to leverage private sector business skills, transfer business risks to the private sector, create employment and also enhance the state’s image by putting its resources to good use. The public and private partnership framework acts as an effective agent for planning, management, problem-solving and change, and therefore enhance rather than reduces the competitive advantage of a tourism destination.

Responsible Tourism Practices

Responsible tourism practices are gaining traction in South Africa, with a focus on minimising negative impacts and maximising positive contributions. This includes promoting responsible wildlife viewing, encouraging responsible consumption and waste management, and supporting fair trade practices. Tour operators are increasingly partnering with local suppliers and artisans, ensuring that tourism directly benefits the local economy.

Collaboration and Certification

To further enhance ESG and sustainability efforts, collaboration among industry stakeholders is crucial. Responsible tourism certifications are credentials awarded to tourism-related businesses and destinations that adhere to sustainable and responsible practices. These certifications often involve meeting specific criteria related to environmental conservation, community engagement, and ethical tourism. Various certifications such as the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) Certification, Responsible Tourism Institute (RTI) – Biosphere, Green Globe and Fair-Trade Tourism are working towards creating a unified approach to sustainable tourism in South Africa. Certification provides recognition to businesses that meet specific sustainability criteria, encouraging others to follow suit. Recognition that would appeal to a more socially and environmentally conscious traveller.

Climate Change Adaptation

South Africa is not immune to the impacts of climate change, which pose significant challenges to the tourism industry. Rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and increased frequency of extreme weather events necessitate adaptation strategies. The industry is investing in climate resilience measures, such as water conservation, renewable energy adoption, and sustainable land management practices, to mitigate the risks and ensure long-term sustainability.

The South African tourism industry is embracing ESG and sustainability as essential components of its growth and development. By prioritising environmental conservation, community empowerment, responsible tourism practices, collaboration, and climate change adaptation, the industry aims to create a thriving and resilient sector. Through these efforts, South Africa can continue to attract tourists while preserving its natural and cultural heritage for generations to come.


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Deborah O’Connor | Sustainability Solutions Lead

Deborah is an internationally experienced strategic environmental and sustainability specialist with a background in environmental management, sustainability, ESG reporting, stakeholder engagement, climate change, energy and decarbonisation and development planning. Debo- rah has experience with Financing Institutions (World Bank Group) and associated environ- mental and social standards as well as other sustainability frameworks – including the Equator Principles, IFC Performance Standards, IFC EHS Guidelines, OECD Common Approach, Corpo- rate, Integrated and Sustainability Reporting (GRI). Deborah has in-depth knowledge of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and completed many online courses facilitated by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. She has undertaken projects across Africa and the Middle East. Projects undertaken in South Africa are undertaken in accordance with the national regulatory requirements – NEMA, NEM:WA, NEM:BA, NEM:AQA and the NWA etc.

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