Africa Travel Week

Coronavirus: Reflections on sustainable tourism

The global impact of the Coronavirus epidemic has stimulated some deep reflections; hard questions and stark realities of the world we live in, writes Gugu Sithole.

Moments of isolation have a sobering effect. We reflect more to depths that we rarely reach when engrossed in the ‘busy-ness’ that we are accustomed to. While it is an agonizing adjustment, it comes with some lessons.

Over the last few weeks of social distancing and lockdown in South Africa, I have grappled with a lot – from philosophical musings, to fear of the unknown and ultimately the hard truth we should collectively face in order to adapt to the post-COVID-19 world.

Media, social circles and any other platforms are awash with conspiracies, fact and fiction about the origins of Coronavirus. Following this discourse is enough to drive one into episodes of anxiety and or depression. What is undoubtedly clear to one and all is that the world as we know it will not be the same again. With this anticipated change, so as our habits, way of life, doing business and most importantly how we co-exist with nature.

For the tourism sector, this lockdown period offers an opportunity for introspection on what we need to do differently to practice responsible tourism. Sustainable tourism has been part of us in scholarly articles, symposiums and governments plans. However, it has either been an afterthought, a slow transformative program or a completely ignored discipline. We can’t afford to ignore it this time.

The tourism sector was one of the first causalities of the Coronavirus pandemic. Airlines could not fly any longer as countries sealed off their borders.  Restaurants shut doors, hotels and resorts were deserted, and national parks announced tour embargoes leaving millions out of work. The economic cost is just but a small piece of this puzzle. It is an equation that can only be balanced if other factors are taken into consideration.


The global travel and tourism industry has recorded astonishing growth in recent years. This multi-billion dollar market contributes immensely to the global economic growth. However with COVID-19, this is set to change. It will take a few years for the sector to find its growth trend again.

South Africa will also be affected by this decline. However, as the world starts to travel again, it will be imperative to tap into empowering local tourism and ensuring pillars of sustainable tourism are in place. If anything, we have learned that the local market is the last line of defence for any sector. When all the borders are closed, the industry relies on local resources to remain functional.


A strong community based sustainable tourism programme attracts great international tourism. It is often argued that a majority of tourism revenue is from international tourists. What is often overlooked in this argument is that international tourists are native elsewhere and vice versa.  Strong community based programmes complement international stimulus. A weak local tourism paradigm lacks a sustainable tourism baseline for international tourists. This collective focus helps in the preservation of the environment. As has been learned during a time of pandemics, there is an intrinsic link between the loss of biodiversity and the detrimental effect on the global quality of life. A strong local system guides visitors and creates strong partnerships that make the environment better.


Culture is a conduit of indigenous knowledge and human beings are naturally attracted to learning more about other cultures. Sustainable tourism is strong on empowering and preserving local cultures as part of the growth paradigm.  Besides being an attraction, a strong, preserved culture has its ways of respecting and preserving the environment. Everything in the world is connected and a disruption of one of the elements tips the scale, with the consequences often far reaching.


Sustainable and responsible tourism is a collective responsibility. If well executed, it supports sustainable development through job creation, economic and infrastructure development. Increase of tourism revenue to any area is a catalyst of growth. It is also a great opportunity for big industry to commit to the speedy reduction of carbon emission. This encompasses both indirect polluters and direct accomplices such as airlines and vehicles. 

A sobering projection that the airline industry will contribute at least 40 percent of global carbon emission is a chilling reality that needs to be changed with more innovations and fuel-efficient mechanisms that are kind to the environment. We have realized that we are like a chain; we are as strong as our weakest link. We are stronger together.

Gugu Sithole

Gugu Sithole is a travel expert and director of Glamping Adventures (, a bespoke glamping company that hosts roving events in major tourist attractions around South Africa.