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Understanding Sustainable Tourism

Reflecting on an inspiring and challenging experience, SONYA SCHOEMAN unpacks the true meaning of sustainable tourism

Siyanda Sopangisa of the Khayelitsha Canoe Club stands calf-deep in water. Khayelitsha in Cape Town is not the first destination you’d think of when contemplating a weekend paddle, yet here we are, on a weekend, in a canoe, on the Kuils river in the Khayelitsha Wetlands Park.

Siyanda and his brother, Akhona, started all of this. They’d wanted to clean up the wetlands and get people to stop dumping rubbish into it, with the hope that once the community could see it in its natural, pristine state, people would interact with it in a different way and use it as a recreational resource. The tourism was merely a means to an end, say the brothers. Cutting their Herculean two-year effort down to one quick sentence: they did the hard work with the help of the City Parks Department and the club was born.

It is a gorgeous day, sun shining, little wind. The clean-up has encouraged birds back into the area and we paddle for a while, chatting and laughing at our poor attempts to navigate rocks and shallows. It reminds me of fun childhood tube floats down rural rivers.

Around a bend, we are asked to bank… up ahead there is a body in the water. Moored on the rocks is a man who looks like he’s fallen asleep, one arm akimbo. Groups begin to gather on the riverbank, speculating; they think the man was drunk and fell into the water. Police are called. The paddle is over. Getting out the canoes, we walk into the township, through paths between small houses where people are having braais or sitting on stoeps, relaxing, having a drink and being neighbourly. Curious and friendly, they come out to talk. Why are you here? Who are you? We buy some oranges from a trader, enjoying the cool juice on the hot day.

Back home, I wasn’t quite sure how to place all of this. In the world of recommending travel experiences, where does it fit? If I wrote about it I would have to include the body, but could the story get people to look beyond that?

It was a memorable travel experience; one that’s stayed with me, but not because of the corpse in the water. Instead, its value lay in the pure slice of Khayelitsha life the day had granted: the grit of the brothers who made this happen; the pocket of prettiness the wetland offered and how the paddlers were determined to spread this pleasure to their community; a view into a neighbourhood as we trudged back through the dusty streets; the unexpected delicious gluten-free spinach sandwiches we had for lunch; the tentative conversations of humans reaching towards each other.

That day had also, shockingly, delivered a body. It was part of the reality, but it was the complete experience that exposed me to how other South Africans live.

This experience is, in its essence, an excellent example of what idealists imagined sustainable tourism to be: authentic interactions between tourists and locals, who as entrepreneurs can open up to outsiders the experiences their communities offer, bringing in money and so the ability to improve their lives. In a nutshell, sustainable tourism is when travellers visit a place and have a positive impact on the economy, the people, and its environment through the resulting job creation and economic and infrastructure development it brings.

Digging deeper, the emphasis is on creating meaningful connections and mutual respect between tourists and local people, involving host communities in decisions that affect

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