Avitourism, tourism relating to birding, might be a niche sector, but that doesn’t mean only a few people are interested in it. In fact, it has huge potential to create more tourism opportunities in Africa and open the blooming birding market to destinations and businesses.
Africa has a quarter of the world’s bird diversity with over 2,700 species and is uniquely positioned to attract birders ranging from the casual birdwatcher to those who dedicate their lives to travelling the world to view birds.
Andrew de Blocq, Avitourism Project Manager at BirdLife South Africa, gave an inspiring PechaKucha talk at WTM Africa 2023 about avitourism and its potential to unlock tourism opportunities in Africa.
De Blocq holds an MSc in Biological Sciences from the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology and wrote his thesis on ecotourism and conservation. He is passionate about avitourism and a keen birder himself.
We picked his brain to learn more about BirdLife South Africa and better understand how businesses can fit avitourism into their overall tourism offering.
1. Give us a bit of background on BirdLife South Africa – what does the company offer travel and tourism business in terms of resources, etc.?
BirdLife South Africa is a conservation NGO that focuses on South Africa’s birds and their habitats. As a non-profit, we are not interested in profiting from tourism. Our interest is in using avitourism as a tool to empower local communities, give them incentives to look after birds and their environment, and use tourism to bolster conservation projects.
BirdLife South Africa is very active in the public space, some examples being our African Birdlife magazine (widely considered one of the best specialist magazines in the world), our annual Bird of the Year campaigns, our various events (including famously chartering cruise ships for thousands of birders to visit remote areas of the Southern Ocean), our annual photography competition, and our annual African Bird Fair.
We also look to play a catalytic role in the avitourism economy, which is why we are launching platforms like GoBirding and recruiting service providers into our networks to provide them market access and, conversely, the market with good services.
2. What was the response to your PechaKucha talk about avitourism and the general feeling about this niche at WTM Africa 2023?
There was a lot of excitement! People have noticed this new explosion of interest in birds and other previously underappreciated aspects of nature and biodiversity. They are looking for ways to reach this growing, vibrant market, and there was significant interest in GoBirding and what it will unlock for Avitourism.
3. Are there any important conservation or sustainability considerations that travel businesses should be aware of when offering avitourism experiences? How can they ensure their activities positively impact bird populations and their habitats, and local communities?
While nature-based tourism focuses on nature as the major motivation for travel, ecotourism considers travel’s sustainability (environmental and socio-economic). All avitourism operators should strive to become ecotourism operators rather than just nature-based tourism operators.
BirdLife South Africa has a network of specialist tour operators that we recommend, all of which have been assessed by the organisation and have subscribed to BirdLife South Africa’s Birding Code of Ethics. This ethical code ensures the birds and their habitats are operators’ top concerns and no detrimental effects happen as a result of the experiences (or even have positive effects, in some cases).
A quick read of our Code of Ethics will provide ways to reduce your impact through your behaviours and approaches, over and above the standard carbon offsetting and other concerns. The primary principle is to prioritise the welfare of birds and their habitats above everything else – profit and people-pleasing included.
4. Are there any challenges or common misconceptions that travel businesses might face when entering the avitourism market? How can they overcome these challenges and address any misconceptions?
Perhaps the biggest misconception is that birders are all the same. There is a stigma that birders are largely elderly, white, and wealthy. As always, there are grains of truth in this, as the demographics of any local bird club will tell you. But birders go beyond this demographic, and there is a diverse community of people of all colours, backgrounds, and ages who are interested in birds.
Birds connect people across all sorts of divides, and even if birds are not the primary interest of your guests, bird-related experiences can enhance your offering greatly, and they are accessible wherever you are.
The primary challenge is market access. The birding community can be insular and difficult to reach. That is where an organisation like BirdLife South Africa can play a vital linking role between service providers and the market, for example, through our GoBirding website (www.gobirding.co.za).
5. In terms of tour operators, what skills or knowledge should guides possess to provide a high-quality birding experience? Are there any certifications or training programmes available for guides interested in specialising in avitourism?
Currently, there are no stipulated requirements for being a specialist bird guide beyond having the entry-level nature guide qualification. From there, you can call yourself a bird guide if you offer specialist birding activities (this, unfortunately, poses a huge challenge for quality control).
The best bird guides have a personal passion for birds and in-depth knowledge of their local birds (especially those that are unique or special in the area) and are pleasant and patient with people. Various birding experts in South Africa offer birding courses (some are members of BirdLife South Africa through our Recommended Course Providers programme). These courses provide good entry-level skills and development, but ultimately learning your birds requires time in the field and studying your books or apps.
6. Are there any emerging trends or developments in the avitourism industry that travel businesses should be aware of? How can they stay updated and adapt their offerings accordingly?
One of the unexpected consequences of the pandemic was an explosion in interest in birds. Being confined to our homes limited our engagement with nature to our gardens and the birds that came to visit. Many people noticed birds for the first time, which developed into a huge growth in the avitourism market.
This new market differs from dedicated birding enthusiasts – they are excited about all birds, not just chasing new birds for their checklists. Their excitement comes from observation rather than collecting new species, which requires a different focus from your guide. This offers an opportunity to weave in indigenous knowledge about birds, interpretation of their behaviour, ecology, etc.
BirdLife South Africa produces a quarterly newsletter for all our subscribed accommodations, tour operators, and course providers to help them stay on top of trends and events.
Interested in expanding your offering and spreading your wings in the world of avitourism?
Listen to Andrew de Blocq’s PechaKucha talk:
To learn more go to https://www.birdlife.org.za/