Pros and cons of ecotourism for local communities

Communities living near remote ecotourism centres can reap the benefits of a range of opportunities which the industry offers them in otherwise job-scarce and remote places. But tourists and industry operators must work with communities to broaden their development opportunities, and avoid the kind of dependency on the industry that could leave communities vulnerable to job losses.

This is according to Dr Sue Snyman, who is associated with the University of Cape Town’s Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU) and works for tourism operator Wilderness Safaris as the Regional Community Development Coordinator and Regional Director of the Children in the Wilderness programme.

Looking at communities living near 16 different high-end ecotourism operations in remote parts of Southern Africa, Snyman found that the benefits of ecotourism went beyond merely the job opportunities which the camps offered.

She found that the staff employed by the industry benefit from the income that came with the job, but also received skills training which they could use in other industries, they often received better nutrition as the employers gave staff three meals a day, and some were able to use their salaries in order to start up side businesses.

‘Community members who were not employed directly by the ecotourism industry also benefited,’ explains Snyman, whose work spanned camps in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

‘Often the tourism-employed staff would then hire people in their community to help with child care or with tending cattle. Similarly, they would spend their money at local businesses, which keeps money circulating within the community,’ she says.

But the closure of the Wilderness Safaris’ Pafuri Camp in the Kruger National Park after it was washed away in floods in 2012 shows how vulnerable a community can be if it becomes too dependent on ecotourism for employment in such remote parts. All staff had to be retrenched.

Snyman recommends that the industry collaborates with communities to build livelihood strategies beyond the immediate tourism-linked jobs.

‘For instance, teaching children about agriculture and training them up in vermiculture to improve the soils, these are ways of building capacity,’ says Snyman.

She said there was also a need for ‘structured’ philanthropy and development projects.

When tourists simply hand out clothes, or toys or stationery randomly, or when development projects are imposed on communities without consultation, they can be unhelpful. One example was a rollout of solar power by an NGO for a community which actually needed water in their village.

Tourism must not be seen as the panacea of rural poverty and unemployment, Snyman says, but rather as an opportunity to work with communities to improve their livelihood strategies and resilience.


Dr Snyman completed her doctorate with the EPRU in 2013, and recently had a paper on this issue published in the journal Tourism and Hospitality Research (

News | 24 July 2014