On a drive to Hermanus to interview Frieda Lloyd, Manager of Cape Whale Coast Tourism, I pondered on what makes a tourism destination a responsible tourism destination.

Is a responsible tourism destination one in which the local government has created an environment to support responsible tourism and responsible travel? Or is a responsible tourism destination one which local tourism businesses are operating responsibly? And if so, is a destination responsible only if most of its tourism businesses operate responsibly, or if the impact of their actions is substantial?

The reason for these questions was central to my assignment, and my reason for interviewing Frieda.  The task was to write a piece on how the Cape Whale Coast is a responsible tourism destination.

The Cape Whale Coast is a 130km stretch of coast in South Africa’s Western Cape province. It includes the towns Hermanus, Gansbaai, Kleinmond and Stanford. It has always been a popular place for domestic holiday makers, and in the past ten years, tourism to the Cape Whale Coast has grown.

But the Cape Whale Coast is like many destinations in South Africa, if not across Africa. Its natural beauty and wildlife (in this case marine and bird life) draws tourists, but its rich biodiversity is threatened by human activity. Patterns of inequality are typical of South Africa and its legacy of apartheid. Black and Coloured residents are poorer and have few opportunities to improve either their economic circumstances or their quality of life. A lack of skills and resources mean unemployment is high, and levels of entrepreneurship low.

There is clearly a need for tourism on the Cape Whale Coast to be managed in way that controls impacts and distributes benefits widely. Tourism businesses are responding to this need and were putting considerable effort into conserving biodiversity, improving quality of life for residents and making sustainable livelihoods possible.

This article is merely a summary of the responsible tourism initiatives from tourism businesses on the Cape Whale Coast. There is simply too much to include in one article. Instead of listing everything that is being done, we have listed here those initiatives that are inspiring, innovative, replicable and offer lessons for tourism businesses and destinations elsewhere. You can also use the links below to refer to those topics you are interested in.

Conserving biodiversity
Improving quality of life
Responsible travel choices
Making sustainable livelihoods possible
Responsible tourism winners
Lessons for other destinations

Conserving biodiversity

conserving biodiversity, cape whale coast

Several organisations on the Cape Whale Coast are involved in the conservation of life on land as well as life under the water, both of which are Sustainable Development Goals (read more about the need for conservation here).

Their activities focus on conserving fynbos, forests, whales, sharks, seabirds and other marine life, and on improving the general health of the coastline and ocean.

Collectively, these are Cape Whale Coast’s tourism drawcards. The fynbos and forests give it beauty and attract nature-lovers, and beaches attract holiday makers. Eco and adventure tourists are drawn by the marine life and activities along the coast.

So tourism businesses on the Cape Whale Coast have a large vested interest in conserving biodiversity. An obvious choice for custodian of the environment is the person whose livelihood depends on it. Thankfully, several tourism businesses are already on the programme and have either undertaken efforts on their own, or partnered with others to conserve individual species, habitats and ecosystems. The result is that on the Cape Whale Coast, tourism businesses have become a major partner in conservation.

We go into a little detail here on how tourism businesses are using their resources to support conservation, creating awareness and recruiting others to help.

Restoring natural environments

Efforts to conserve fynbos and forests on the Cape Whale Coast, while necessary, are also difficult. Many threatened habitats fall within private land, outside the control of conservation organisations. And removing alien vegetation and then restoring areas to their natural state is costly and labour-intensive.

Despite the challenges, there are ongoing solo and collaborative efforts to conserve the biodiversity of the area. Tourism has been leveraged in creative and effective ways to support conservation.

Tree planting as part of a tourist experience

As part of their Fynbos Trail experience, hikers can choose to plant an indigenous tree in the Stinkhoutsbos Forest. The Stinkhoutsbos Forest Restoration Project is a partnership between the Flower Valley Conservation Trust and Fynbos Trails.

tree planting, cape whale coast
Hikers on the Fynbos Trail pose after having planted a tree in the Stinkhoutbos Forest

Tree planting as part of a festival

Greenpop’s Reforest Fest describes itself as a “reforestation festival”. This annual festival brings together people to plant trees in the Platbos forest. Making true the saying that many hands make light work, up to today some 4600 festival goers have planted 50645 trees.

Festival goers planting trees in Platbos at GreenPop’s Reforest Fest

Tourism properties as part of a conservancy

A group of private property owners, including some tourism businesses, have pooled their resources to protect 16 000 hectares of threatened lowland fynbos and forest. Property owners in the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy work towards removing alien vegetation and planting indigenous trees.

Alien clearing is just one of the Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy’s projects

Reforestation funded by tourists and tourism businesses

Trees for Tourism runs reforestation programmes on the Cape Whale Coast that is funded by tourists and tourism businesses who want to offset their environmental footprint. Since 2008, Trees for Tourism has facilitated the planting of 54947 trees in Platbos forest and 14929 elsewhere.

trees for tourism, cape whale coast
Juvenile trees that were eventually planted in the Platbos Forest

Special mentions

animal in forest, cape whale coast
Reforestation encourages the return and flourishing of local fauna. Here we have a female bushbuck caught on camera in Platbos Forest

Farm 215

Despite the name, Farm 215 is a reserve and a protected area under the stewardship of Cape Nature. Farm 215’s guest house was designed to be compatible with the surrounding environment. It is a good example of a small-scale sustainable operation supporting the conservation of a local ecosystem, in this case a unique part of the already-special Cape Floral Kingdom. The owners of Farm 215 are also the biggest contributor of trees to the reforestation programme. It paid for 12 000 trees to be planted through Trees for Tourism.

Indigenous trees for reforestation are grown in a nursery at Grootbos

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve

In 2008 Grootbos Private Nature Reserve established the Future Trees programme for restoring the Milkwood forest that burnt during the 2006 fire. They follow a scientific system for the rehabilitation of the forest. A planting plan was developed after the current forest size was compared to that in aerial photographs from 1937 so that the forest is closest to what it was when it was once pristine. The trees planted are indigenous species that are grown in their own nursery. In this way local genetic sources are kept

Supporting conservation research

For conservation initiatives to be relevant and effective they need to be informed by information that can only be gained through research. There are several organisations doing marine research on the Cape Whale Coast. Research focuses on – among other things – the habitat, behaviour and population dynamics of the sharks and whales in local waters.

Local boat-based tour operators support the research being done either by funding research or helping with field data collection. Volunteer tourists and interns are recruited to collect field data. Tour operators take on board field data collectors either when they’re out on tour or on dedicated field data collection missions.

  • Shark research conducted by the Dyer Island Conservation Trust is funded by Marine Dynamics. Volunteers with International Marine Volunteers help collect and analyse field data.
  • Shark research conducted by the South African Shark Conservancy is funded and supported by the Overstrand Municipality, White Shark Projects, Cape Nature, Great White Shark Tours and the Cape Whale Coast. Interns recruited by these organisations collect field data.
  • Southern Right Charters, a Hermanus-based whale watching operator, was involved in the development of Walker Bay’s Marine Ecology Research Programme (MERP). The programme is the only research currently being done on whales from boats in the bay.
  • Conservation on Grootbos Private Nature Reserve is also backed-up by ecological research. Research is conducted by the conservation manager and his team who use checklists record flora and fauna. This data then informs the Grootbos conservation management plan. The plan gets updated when research provides new insights.
volunteer researcher, cape whale coast
A volunteer with International Marine Volunteers accompanies a Marine Dynamics tour to record data about sharks sighted
fynbos research, cape whale coast
Grootbos’ conservation team collect data that will inform their conservation management team

Cleaning the coast

The problem of ocean pollution and its disastrous impact on marine species and ecosystems has recently come under the spotlight – deservedly. Pictures of turtles eating plastic bags or oil-slicked penguins make the news, but these are only some of the effects of ocean pollution. The real impacts are much deeper and scarier than this.

Most of the ocean pollution comes from the land, and some of this is trash from beaches. Coastal pollution itself is a problem. Trash on a beach is as much a hazard to animals as it is in the sea. But they also make beaches uglier and less pleasant places to be. So the Cape Whale Coast’s tourism businesses have more than one reason to tackle the problem of dirty beaches. Those that have gotten involved are:

Dyer Island Conservation Trust (DICT) has a Fishing Line Bin Project to collect discarded fishing lines. Fishing lines are a hazard as they’re strong, non-biodegradable and clear – easy for fish, birds and other animals and marine life to get entangled in or even swallow.

fishing line collection, cape whale coast
Discarded fishing line collected by the DICT clean-up crew gets disposed in a special bin

A once-off coastal clean-up of the cliff path in Hermanus organised by Southern Right Charters (in association with Ocean Conservancy and Plastics SA) has been extended. Regular clean-ups of the New Harbour and now an activity in their Great Oceans Initiative (#GO), and the campaign #GOWalk is aimed at creating awareness of pollution among both staff and the public.

harbour clean up, cape whale coast
A Southern Right Charters employee in a clean-up of the New Harbour

Dyer Island Conservation Trust organises regular beach clean ups and gets local school groups and volunteers involved. During these clean-ups, data is logged so that specific problem areas are identified and tackled.

beach clean up, cape whale coast
Volunteers with International Marine Volunteers out on a beach clean up

Raising awareness about conservation

On the Cape Whale Coast where tourism and conservation go together, tourism is not only a way to entertain visitors but also a chance to educate them. Several tour operators on the Cape Whale Coast make customers conscious of conservation issues as part of their tour. Others take this a step further and work to raise an awareness among the community and educate them to make them custodians of the sea.

Awareness-raising and educating is generally aimed at providing general information, debunking myths (for example negatives ones about sharks), creating a respect for wildlife and the natural environment, explaining the need for conservation and encouraging people to contribute to conservation.

Most tour operators give their customers related to conservation as part of their tour briefing. Others run long-term programmes and short-term campaigns. Both are effective at creating awareness and educating the public about conservation issues.

  • Entry into the African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary is free. The sanctuary aims to create an awareness of the dangers marine birds face. Visitors can get a peek at what is happening behind the scenes.
  • The Dyer Island Conservation Trust Environmental Education Programme (DEEP) is an ongoing programme to upskill learners in marine conservation. The programme has an intake of 13 learners per year for a three-year course.
  • Grootbos’ Dibanisa youth environmental education and sport project combines education and recreation in an after-school education program. The focus on the program is on sport and excursions aimed at educating about nature and encouraging an appreciation of nature and the environment. The program focuses on the main ecosystems on the Cape Whale Coast – the fynbos and the sea.
  • Marine Dynamics, Southern Rights Charters and White Shark Projects separately give educational talks in schools, either as part of their own educational programme or in collaboration with other organisations like the Whale Coast Conservation and WESSA. They also offer learners complimentary tours.
  • The 21 Days for the Ocean is an annual campaign from White Shark Projects running between September and October and coinciding with the Whale Festival and the school holidays. The campaign is a series of ocean-themed events aimed at creating a deeper understanding of the value of the sea. Events include educational talks at schools, fundraising events, educational trips, a photo exhibition, informative beach walks, coastal clean ups & even a “selfie for the sea” competition. Many of the events are children-friendly in recognition of tomorrow’s ocean warriors.
  • Marine Dynamics has an ongoing programme of free talks by experts on marine conservation. It hosts one talk per month for nine months of the year
  • Marine Dynamics, Southern Right Charters and White Shark Projects have leveraged local and international events and observances to raise awareness and educate the public. This has included exhibiting at local events like festivals, talking at adult group meetings and co-ordinating campaigns around observances like World Ocean Day, Marine Month and Plastic-Free July.
marine excursion, cape whale coast
Learners on DEEP programme on an educational trip with Dyer Island Cruises to learn more marine life and the ocean
The White Shark Project’s 21 Days of Ocean campaign is an annual awareness campaign on how they can be custodians of the sea
school talk, cape whale coast
Southern Right Charters’ Greater Oceans Campaign (#GO) focused on educational talks (#GO Talk) presented at educational facilities in the local community

Improving quality of life

As in other destinations, tourism businesses are often called on to support local events, causes and initiatives. This is no different on the Cape Whale Coast where tourism businesses contribute to making the area better to live in – focusing on comfort, education and recreation.

Among the many good things that tourism businesses on the Cape Whale Coast do, we found that Grootbos and the Grootbos Foundation, Hermanus and Stanford wineries, White Shark Projects, Southern Right Charters and Marine Dynamics are among the businesses that contribute by:

  • Sponsoring local events
  • Sponsoring local sports teams
  • Making cash donations to charities, schools and creches and causes
  • Funding of community projects on a regular basis
  • Donating vouchers for tours or accommodation that local charities and projects can use for fundraising
  • Giving complimentary educational tours to local school learners and other community organisations

These last two are great examples of how a tourism business can give in-kind instead of giving in-cash.

We also found these exciting, long-term initiatives from tourism business that can be adopted elsewhere or has lessons for tourism businesses:

Enriching children’s lives through a recycling exchange

White Shark Projects runs the Recycle Swop Shop in the Masakhane township which lets children exchange recyclable waste for necessities. The children earn points by collecting recyclable waste like tins, bottles and plastic containers. They can exchange their points for necessities like soap, stationery, clothing and food basics, and even toys if they’ve earned enough points.

On a practical level, some of the children’s needs are met, Masakhane is cleaned up and recyclers benefit. But the project also encourages the kids to take the initiative and rewards them for their effort. It gives the kids an early lesson on economic value, the processes or earning and trading and how to be environmentally responsible.

The first recycling swop shop in Hermanus was opened by Zoete Inval Travellers Lodge, but this is no longer operating. However, their website still has information on how you can start your own.

Supporting early childhood education

The Hermanus Wine Route has 14 wineries concentrated along an 18km stretch. All are open to the public. Wineries on the route have championed the establishment of Early Learning Centres (ECD). Two wineries have ECDs located on their property – Hamilton Russell Vineyards and Bergplaas.

The Bergplaas ECD was established and managed by the Pebbles Project. Pebbles specialises in providing educational facilities for communities on wine farms. Several local restaurants, accommodation establishments and wine estate tasting rooms on the route have signed up to fundraise for the local Pebbles Project. Through its Hospitality Fundraising Initiative, tourism businesses and their customers can donate to the organisation. Tourism businesses are given a fundraising kit that makes to encourage guests donate. The kit includes brochures with information on the project, donation envelopes and a donation box.

fundraising for child education, cape whale coast
The Pebbles Project’s Hospitality Fundraising kit includes this envelope in which guests at wine farms, restaurants and accommodation establishments can donate

Sports for development

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve is the main funder of the Football Foundation, a programme from the Grootbos Foundation. The programme supports sports development by providing coaching, facilities and equipment. But the scope of the programme is much broader than this. Sport is being leveraged to promote education, health well-being and a more integrated community.

In addition to sports, the programme addresses the empowerment of girls and women, team building, growing food, nutrition and conservation.

Sports training is just one aspect of the Football Foundation’s programme, but is a drawcard

Preparing young adults for life and work

The Green Futures Programme is another programme from the Grootbos Foundation. The programme’s horticulture and life skills college aims to give unemployed young adults skills and confidence to market themselves as employable. The course students do is accredited and designed to teach life skills. Students receive a nationally accredited certificate on completing the course and get help find work. They can also apply for a second year of field guide training. Since its inception, over 118 young people have graduated, and more than 90% of graduates have found employment on completion of the course.

youth training, cape whale coast
Green Futures students work in the Green Futures Nursery, learning to propagate endemic fynbos plants and indigenous trees

The Dyer Island Conservation Trust Environmental Education Programme (DEEP) recruits 13 learners each year for a three-year environmental education programme. The programme aims to upskill learners in marine conservation and is monitored to evaluate the growth of each leaner.

youth environmental education, cape whale coast
Learners on the DEEP programme plant trees at the local high school to make for a prettier school environment

Responsible travel choices on the Cape Whale Coast

Visitors to the Cape Whale Coast are not short of choices if they want to travel responsibly. To quote Marine Dynamics “your choice makes a difference”, and on the Cape Whale Coast tourists can easily do so. The destination has a fair number of certified tourism businesses for visitors to choose from. This also demonstrates the level of commitment to responsible tourism in the destination.

Certified tourism businesses

Seven tourism businesses on the Cape Whale Coast are certified by Fair Trade Tourism (FTT). FTT certification confirms that the business operates sustainably and in alignment with the South African National Standard for Responsible Tourism. The certified businesses are:

  1. Dyer Island Cruises
  2. Grootbos Private Nature Reserve
  3. International Marine Volunteers
  4. Marine Dynamics Tours
  5. Southern Right Charters
  6. Whale Song Lodge
  7. White Shark Projects

CapeNature’s Kogelberg Nature Reserve also has an ECO Certification from Ecotourism Australia. This certification is in alignment with Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) criteria.

Blue Flag beaches

A Blue Flag is awarded to a beach that meets a standard of quality in the areas of safety, amenities, cleanliness, environmental information and environmental management. Blue Flag status assures beach-goers that a beach is safe and clean and that facilities are well-managed. Kleinmond, Hawston and Grotto beach are beaches on the Cape Whale Coast with Blue Flag status. Castle Beach situated close to Gansbaai at Pearly Beach received Pilot Beach Flag status.

Blue Flag boats

Five boat-based tour operators in the Cape Whale Coast have signed the Blue Flag Environmental Code of Conduct. A total of six boats meet the stipulations in the code and have in place a sound environmental management system.

Making sustainable livelihoods possible

A tourism business that works to strengthen the local economy is more resilient as it strengthens its support networks and its community. The ways in which a tourism business can support the local economy ranges from simple to complex.

The Cape Whale Coast is well-developed and has a mature services industry, so for most tourism businesses procuring some of their goods and services locally is low hanging fruit. For some, so is supporting local producers by selling their goods like crafts, soaps and candles in their gift shops.

The more challenging aspects in strengthening the local economy is giving young people the skills to start a career, creating jobs and supporting small businesses – focusing on disadvantage people. This last is perhaps the most difficult. Several tourism businesses on the Cape Whale Coast have risen to the challenge.

Mutually beneficial business development support

Marine Dynamics and Southern Right Charters have gone a step further and have helped entrepreneurs, particularly those from the underprivileged community start and grow their business. For Marine Dynamics, this has been mutually beneficial as the businesses they have supported now provide them with video production, photography and transport services for their customers. The assistance given to local entrepreneurs has included:

  • helping to develop a business plan
  • accessing financing
  • helping with the setup of the business
  • purchasing equipment for small businesses
  • providing low-interest or interest free loans
  • continued mentorship

Grootbos Foundation’s Siyakhula programme was established to create employment and develop income generating skills. Projects include an organic farm, honey farming, a water bottling plant and candle making. The Siyakhula Organic Farm is located within the Grootbos Nature Reserve and employs eight full-time staff. Produce from the farm is sold to the lodge.

enterprise development, cape whale coast
The ladies from the Siyakhula Organic Farm with their fresh produce that is sold to Grootbos lodges

Skills training for young people

Grootbos Foundation’s Siyakhula programme also provides skills training workshops for young people. Workshops are aimed at preparing students for a career and work by helping them identify their strengths and learn about career options. Learnerships and bursaries allow students from rural communities to study further. This study includes a business development programme for wannabe-entrepreneurs. An amazing 1783 students per year are estimated to have completed the workshop.

A graduate entrepreneur from Grootbos Foundation’s Siyakhula Programme

Responsible tourism winners from the Cape Whale Coast

Gansbaai, South Africa
Gold for Best Destination: 2015 World Responsible Tourism Awards
Overall winner: 2015 African Responsible Tourism Awards
Gold for Best Destination: 2015 African Responsible Tourism Awards

The judges awarded this win because:

This is a remarkable group of tourism businesses many of which have won Responsible Tourism Awards individually, including Grootbos for its conservation of the fynbos and its poverty reduction impact, and Marine Dynamics for conservation and local economic development. The judges wanted to recognise them for the overall award for the way in which they have worked, together to create a destination with outstanding product, memorable experiences and brought local economic development and communal facilities to the local community. They have demonstrated what tourism can do to make better places to live in and great places to visit.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve
Gold for Best for Poverty Reduction: 2015 African Responsible Tourism Awards
Best for Accommodation SDG13: 2017 World Responsible Tourism Awards
Silver for Best for Poverty Reduction: 2015 World Responsible Tourism Awards

Grootbos is no stranger to winning Responsible Tourism Awards. What stands out is the long history of interventions that amplify each other. The programmes of the Grootbos Foundation focus on improved livelihoods through self-reliance, development of viable enterprise development, gender balance and empowerment of women. Impacts are well quantified and information about projects easily accessible to the willing reader.

As their video tells you, “We are but a single thread in this complex web, bound together inextricably to conserve and protect diversity, to seek solutions that support humanity, to live in harmony with nature.”

Marine Dynamics, South Africa
Gold for Best for Wildlife Conservation: 2015 African Responsible Tourism Awards
People’s Choice: 2016 African Responsible Tourism Awards
Highly commended: 2017 World Responsible Tourism Awards
Silver for Best for Aquatic Species & Habitat Conservation: 2018 African Responsible Tourism Awards

Marine Dynamics provide very high-quality shark cage diving experiences. They operate in a sector where there is rightly a lot of criticism of current practice. Marine Dynamics are industry leaders, a commercial operation which operates to the highest conservation standards, where every trip has a marine biologist aboard to provide interpretation and collect data for scientific research. An operator that makes a significant contribution to conservation and the local economy.

Marine Dynamics has been awarded many times for its achievements in conserving the African penguins and white sharks and in combatting marine pollution. They have contributed to both the practice and science of marine, conservation partnering with national and international universities to understand the ecology of the species and the habitat.

The judges were impressed by the continuing commitment to using tourism to fund conservation science and the success of practical interventions through the penguin sanctuary and the penguin nesting boxes. Marine Dynamics has long been educating the domestic and international tourists it attracts about the importance of conserving marine species and encouraging them to contribute to their conservation.

This Award recognises their continuing and growing success in the battle to conserve marine life and in particular their DEEP three-year environmental education programme with young learners, the 3000 children in their outreach programmes and the 30,000 reached through their annual competition.

Answering the original question

My original question asked what makes a responsible tourism destination. Tourism businesses have been putting this coastal community and biodiverse natural heritage on the map for the last twenty years. Many of the tourism business are committed to protecting the natural environment, preserving heritage, improving the quality of life of local people and strengthening the local economy.

Ultimately, tourism is making the Cape Whale Coast a better place for people to live in, in addition to being a great place to visit. Even though there is only a cluster of proactive and passionate tourism businesses doing much of the work in responsible tourism, their impact is substantial.

Frieda describes it well:

“It is the people that makes the place.  The Cape Whale Coast has many champions and these resourceful individuals takes on environmental challenges that builds towards a responsible tourism destination.  Every small effort to care for the people and the environment is a step in the right direction.  As long as we move towards caring more and conserving our natural resources in new ways the benefits will multiply.  Small efforts will create significant positive impact.”

So the Cape Whale Coast is not only a responsible tourism destination, but is also one that provides the following universal lessons for all destinations:

  • Every effort towards reaching a common goal count. No effort is too small.
  • Focusing on efforts that compliment a tourism business’s own operations make responsible tourism easier.
  • Partnering and pooling resources make lighter work and a bigger impact.

As with responsible tourism businesses, being a responsible tourism destination is a lengthy journey instead of a project executed within a fixed timeframe. We look forward to seeing where the Cape Whale Coast’s journey is headed to next.