By Tamika Du-Pont

Globally, the tourism industry has experienced steady growth over the past decades.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the industry has experienced consistent growth and diversification, making it one of the fastest growing economic sectors in the world.

The Eswatini Tourism Authority (ETA) revealed that despite a 5.1% decline in foreign visitor arrivals in 2018, tourists contributed E387 million to Eswatini’s economy through formal accommodation only. This means the tourism industry is a serious contender in the contribution of Eswatini’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Unsurprisingly, tourism is recognised as a key tool to promote development and economic growth. The impact of the tourism industry on the global community is becoming increasingly apparent, with international tourist numbers having increased exponentially from 25 million in 1950 to 1.4 billion in 2018.

The emphasis placed on the economic benefits of mainstream tourism has also seen government identifying it as a key sector to anchor economic activity in Eswatini. In the 2019/20 Budget Speech, Minister of Finance Neal Rijkenberg iterated that the tourism sector has proven to be a resilient and fundamental contributor to economic activity in the country, hence it has been identified as a priority sector for growth. Again, the Strategic Roadmap 2019 – 2022, prioritises the tourism sector as a key engine for economic recovery.

However, there are criticisms associated with the industry, not the least being the unequal nature of economic development that often comes with tourism development. Studies have continuously highlighted the negative environmental and socio-cultural impacts tourism often brings, including commercialisation of cultural activities, social conflicts due to economic welfare, increased crime, congestion as well as biodiversity loss and pollution.

 A question of policy interest is; does Eswatini’s tourism industry foster elements of sustainable and inclusive growth for the benefit of emaSwati? If not, what can the country do to ensure that the benefits derived from the tourism industry accrue to emaSwati as well as increase this sector’s contribution to Eswatini’s GDP?

 Components of a sustainable tourism industry

 Research shows that different tourism models affect the local people of a tourist destination in different ways. Emerging concepts on sustainable tourism are now emphasising people’s participation as well as local ownership and operation of tourism ventures as a means to reduce poverty as well as foster inclusive and sustainable growth.

In recent years, buzzwords such as “responsible” and “sustainable” tourism have dominated the industry. The problem with conventional tourism is that it usually favours inputs and participation from large multinational corporations such as international airlines, world tour operators and agents, foreign-franchised hotels, with only a small share of ancillary tourism business allocated to local elites and very few lucky small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

An example of this kind of tourism includes luxury hotels that tend to be externally controlled and import-intensive. This form of tourism prioritises profit maximisation, tends to be extractive, and pays little focus on developing the local tourism industry with its different value chains within the local context.

As a result of the growing realisation that localised cooperation, trust and networking are essential ingredients for sustainable tourism, alternative forms are now emerging. One of these approaches includes community-based tourism (CBT). Likewise, Eswatini wants to move to a responsible and sustainable tourism industry, placing emphasis on the rights of local people to participate in decision-making processes and to be consulted on activities likely to impact on their well-being and use of domestic resources.

CBT has been proposed as a pathway towards achieving a more just, equitable, and sustainable tourism industry. CBT is defined by World Wildlife Fund as a form of tourism “where the local community has substantial control over and involvement in its development and management, and a major proportion of the benefits remain within the community”.

The appeal of the CBT model is that communities capture most of the revenue generated on site with limited leakages out of the local economy. Tourism income received from projects and associated distributed wages generate significant linkages for the local economy, which helps to support local families.

At the same time, through CBT, local inhabitants get involved in the management of the tourism projects, which allows members to gain institutional and managerial capacity. The idea is that community participation should lead to local economic development, which involves local communities influencing the type of business, industry, and employment opportunities in their area.

Namibia is regarded as one of Africa’s success stories when it comes to CBT projects focusing on natural resource management. Numerous studies highlight the role that local participation is making in creating and balancing economic opportunities, particularly for the indigenous people of Namibia.

Increased tolerance and positive attitudes towards tourism have been observed, as well as the provision of a more stable source of income compared to other income generating activities such as mining, which often remain limited and erratic. Similar outcomes have also been observed in Botswana, where CBT has become an important source of employment and rural development.

Case for CBT in Eswatini

Through the Tourism Authority and Eswatini National Trust Commission (ENTC), Eswatini has established numerous CBT projects in the country such as Mahamba Gorge, Ngwempisi Hiking Trails, Nsangwini Rock Art, and Shewula Mountain Camp, just to mention a few.

CBT provides for an attractive tourism development strategy for Eswatini to reduce both poverty and income inequalities. Yet without any evidence on the value of such projects to local communities, it is difficult to develop policies and strategies that can further strengthen the tourism industry through CBT.

Hence, the Eswatini Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (ESEPARC) is currently conducting a study to quantify the economic value of CBT in the country. This study will provide a baseline on how CBT projects are performing in Eswatini, establish whether host communities are receiving the expected benefits, as well as highlight the strengths and weaknesses of such tourism projects in the Kingdom.

In addition, the study will explore the perceptions and attitudes of community members towards CBT projects, as well as determine opportunity for interventions to leverage CBT within the tourism sector as a serious engine for reigniting economic growth.

As the country approaches 2022 – the last year for implementation of the National Development Strategy (NDS) – it is important to prioritise and strengthen pro-poor development projects to ensure that a majority of Eswatini’s population is channelled into productive economic activities.

Given that the tourism sector is earmarked as a priority sector for achieving such needed economic growth, it is important that (i) any development programming or policy within the tourism sector should be anchored on the principles of sustainable development; (ii) potential negative impacts of tourism projects on the natural environment and livelihoods of host communities are prevented and minimised where possible; and (iii) principles of inclusivity and sustainability are translated into real time projects across all sectors of the economy to achieve larger sustainable development goals.