As I checked into my most recent rest camp in South Africa’s Kruger Park a few days ago, I was handed a questionnaire created by South African National Parks. The intro explained that this was part of its efforts to develop responsible tourism. The questionnaire wanted to understand my attitudes to sustainability practices, in particular towards water, waste and energy management.
After a set of fairly standard questions exploring how I behaved at home – my use of renewable energy, composting, eco products etc, it then moved on to ask what sort of measures I would be willing to support during my stay in the Kruger National Park. While many of the questions were common to me, such as asking whether I would be willing to take showers rather than baths, some of them stood out as signs of how severe environmental issues are becoming, for example, would I be prepared to ‘Collect cold water in bucket while waiting for hot water at shower and use this water for flushing toilets’?
Having explored what I was willing to do, the following section explored how this might be paid for. Different models were proposed, with me asked to tick on a scale from ‘totally acceptable’ to ‘totally unacceptable’. Options included a compulsory levy being charged. Or individually metering units. Or rewarding me with discount vouchers to spend on activities such as game drives if I didn’t use my allocated resources. I’ve written before about how innovative lodges such as Soneva and Chepu use levies and metering and rewards, but to see a national tourism organisation exploring such options was startling. Both a sobering reminder of the issue’s urgency, and impressive to see it being taken seriously at last.
What really struck me was the final section of the questionnaire, which asked a series of philosophical questions about my attitudes towards nature, and our relationship with it as humans. Answers were to be given on a sliding scale between two alternative viewpoints. One question asked my view on whether ‘Nature should be protected for nature’s own sake’ or if instead ‘Nature should be protected for the benefit and enjoyment of people’. Another asked whether I believed that “Conservation should largely be subsidized – when aiming to make money conservation values are eroded resulting in poor conservation decision-making’ or if ‘Conservation should make business sense – if conservation pays for itself or makes a profit, it will be more sustainable in the long run as opposed to relying on external subsidies’.
There were three other similar, thought-provoking questions. I’d be fascinated to know the results of the survey. I’d also love to see more organisations working in tourism posing such questions to their guests. And not just to the guests, but to ourselves. We talk a lot about what we should do. Maybe it’s time we spent a bit more time exploring why we do it.
What are we trying to achieve? A tourism industry based on the same consumption driven growth model, but sipping on bamboo straws under solar powered roofs? Or a much needed space to reflect and redefine our relationship with production and consumption, with one another, and with the natural world? Isn’t that what ‘better places to live in and visit’ really means?
Finding a sustainable story for this ever-growing industry isn’t about learning to ‘manage our success’ by redistributing tourists and charging them a bit more, or solving the challenge of transporting an extra half billion on slightly more energy efficient airplanes. It’s about redefining the meaning of success itself.