Eco-tourism helps to reverse rural exodus in South Africa

Eco-tourism helps to reverse rural exodus in South Africa

More than 1.5-million foreign tourists are drawn to South Africa every year for its Big 5 wildlife experiences and scenic beauty. What they often don’t know is that their dollars and Euros spent in the country’s many game reserves are contributing to the upliftment and development of impoverished rural communities.

Apart from the employment that game reserves themselves create, they’re also developing small local farmers and supporting suppliers of seasonal, local produce for the dinner table. In the process, they’re not only ensuring an all-round authentic experience for tourists, but also securing the economic sustainability of rural communities.

Rural flight has become a common phenomenon in developing countries, with people attempting to escape poverty by moving to cities where they believe employment opportunities will be better. The influx of rural migrants to cities tends to have the opposite effect, however – increased urban sprawl, housing shortages, pressure on urban infrastructure and services, and rising unemployment.

Poverty and its accompanying social problems affect both the rural communities, where the economically unproductive youth and elderly are left behind, and the cities where the rural migrants take on unskilled, low-paying jobs as they lack the education and skills to secure decent work.

South Africa’s booming eco-tourism industry is helping to reverse this trend and injecting new life into rural areas. Improved infrastructure and sustainable employment are key spin-offs of investment in tourism and environmental conservation.


Game reserves in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, many of them converted from commercial farming operations, have impacted positively on both environmental conservation and socio-economic development, according to research commissioned by Indalo, the association of private nature reserves in the province, which aims to promote biodiversity conservation in a socially responsible manner.

The researchers from the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University showed that the game reserves create 4.5 times more jobs than farming, and most of these are better paying, skilled jobs.

The economic impact goes even further, says Vernon Wait, a co-owner of Lalibela Game Reserve, a Big 5 reserve in the Eastern Cape “Where we could be ringing up the big established produce suppliers in the city, we’ve instead made the choice to source as much as possible within a 15km radius of Lalibela,” he said.

The benefits of helping small local farmers to supply the reserve’s needs are many – increased local economic activity and employment, as well as a reduced carbon footprint for the food served on Lalibela’s legendary hearty buffet tables and local, seasonal produce adding to the authenticity of the guests’ experience.

“It’s harder work to build up a supply chain of small, local and organic suppliers, but we realise the benefits in terms of community upliftment, and our guests understand and appreciate what we are doing,” Wait said.

Lalibela Game Reserve lives up to its promise on local sourcing –organically-grown olives and olive oil are supplied by Springvale Olive Estate in the district, free-range eggs, chicken and venison from neighbouring farms, and vegetables from informal farmers who are being mentored by the Lalibela team to produce not only for the reserve’s needs but to become small commercial farmers supplying a range of local customers. And guests really appreciate being told about the efforts taken by Lalibela to source locally:

“Those tomatoes might not look perfectly round like those in the supermarkets at home, but they taste like real tomatoes,” said Londoner Marjory Black.

American visitor Mitch Davitz comments: “At home in New York we can eat anything 12 months of the year – strawberries in winter if you like – but here you know what you’re being served is home-grown, local and truly seasonal. Who needs quail eggs flown in from Europe when you can be having free-range eggs from the farm next door?

“The fact that you’re supporting local farmers in the process, adds tremendously to the value of the overall experience.”

Lalibela employs about 100 people, most of them from local families who’ve lived in the area for generations and with employment on the reserve as well as business opportunities through local sourcing, having become double-income families with more stable and reliable income.

While an up-close-and-personal wildlife experience will always top the list of reasons for visiting a Big 5 reserve like Lalibela, the experience is about more than the animals. Wait says tourists value the interaction with local people with close ties to the land over generations.

“We just loved being able to hear all the local history, legends and stories of colourful characters from people who have grown up and lived on this land their whole lives,” said Dutch guest Anna de Wolff.

“We’re trying to make sure that we have a positive impact not only for guests and our own employees, but on the surrounding area that we call home. This really is what sustainability and responsible tourism is all about,” says Wait.