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12 September 2023

Tomorrow’s Treasures: Sustainable Tourism in SANParks for Vision 2040

South African National Parks (SANParks) works to maintain and conserve our natural and cultural heritage in a world where change is constant and occurs at a quicker rate than ever before.  Since we are the custodians of some of the world’s most beautiful environments, SANParks are at the forefront of these conservation efforts. But in order to guarantee that these treasures survive for future generations, it is crucial to reevaluate our approach to tourism within our parks, embracing sustainability, innovation, and adaptation in this changing world to ensure these treasures are preserved for generations to come.

Sustainable tourism is vital to the survival of our parks and is not simply the latest buzzword. The effects of tourism on our sensitive ecosystems cannot be disregarded in this age of ecological problems and climatic disasters. Mass tourism has been a common component of traditional tourist approaches, which unintentionally endangers the same riches they are meant to promote. However, a paradigm shift may be necessary for SANParks’ future sustainable tourism.

Kalahari Tented Camp

The Kalahari Tented Camp in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

South Africa is a megadiverse country with exceptional species richness and endemism.  Our endemic plant species richness is among the highest on the planet and the South African National Parks house some of the most fragile and diverse ecosystems on the planet.  Our generation has a moral duty to preserve these riches for future generations to enjoy. Sustainable tourist practices such as eco-friendly accommodation, and sustainable resource use, including sustainable hiking, controlling carbon emissions, and sticking to ethical animal interactions can assist us in protecting these valuable environments.

It is not only a matter of “visiting” these parks; it is also a matter of “experiencing” them in a way that benefits everyone. Sustainable tourism is therefore equally concerned with community development and sharing the benefits widely. As we move towards Vision 2040, we must embrace tourism that improves the lives of local residents. Consider sustainable parks or tourism products run by surrounding communities that provide employment, education, and opportunity.

To truly pave the way for Vision 2040, we must embrace innovation. Imagine electric safari vehicles, powered by renewable energy sources, silently gliding through our parks. Think about cutting-edge VR experiences that allow people worldwide to explore SANParks without setting foot on its soil. The future of sustainable tourism is rife with exciting possibilities. Holograms of critically endangered species are already a reality in visitor centres in some parts of the world.  It provides a novel, attention-grabbing way for visitors to discover and engage with endangered species by using innovative technology to create 3D, moving holograms, which visitors can witness first-hand, getting closer than ever to these species. Sadly, most of us will never get to see some threatened species in real life and seeing a hologram is the only way we will ever see incredibly rare species. It is a fantastic way to raise visitors’ awareness of threatened species in a cool and futuristic new way and raising awareness will help preserve important species by giving visitors an experience to engage and learn about animals in a way that has never been done before.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual reality, animation and gamification may be tools to create a message that resonates with visitors, especially the youth. The goal should be to inspire the next generation to make positive changes for wildlife, and through innovative new ways in a world that is led by technology, we can create these exciting experiences. It will be great for tourists to see something spectacular and futuristic on their visits. However, the ultimate goal is not to have a future where holograms are the only way to see magnificent animals. Instead, the hope is to use technology to raise awareness and inspire people to take action to protect endangered species and their habitats.

To inspire change, we must sometimes also challenge the status quo. The traditional approach to tourism, with its heavy ecological footprint, is simply unsustainable. Controversy arises when we dare to question established norms. Some may say that it’s time to challenge the conventional wisdom that more tourists equals more revenue. Therefore saying that we need to focus on fewer, but higher-spending, eco-conscious tourists who genuinely care about our natural wonders.  This approach may however be exclusionist in its approach and the reality of our South African socioeconomic makeup may counter that argument, instead providing more people, more access to our natural wonders, especially for those who cannot spend their already limited incomes.  SA National Parks Week certainly tries to address this reality by providing free access to national parks from 16 to 24 September 2023.

As visitors to SANParks, let’s pledge to be more than tourists. Let’s be stewards of these remarkable ecosystems, ambassadors for their conservation, and champions for a brighter, more sustainable future. Together, we can turn the dream of Vision 2040 into a living reality, where nature thrives, communities prosper, and our planet remains a sanctuary for all.