Balancing nature, tourism key to sustainable coasts


Coral reef scene

from DION HENRICK in Cape Town
Western Cape Bureau
CAPE TOWN, (CAJ News) – AS the world observes October as World Habitat Awareness Month and South Africa celebrates Marine Month, the focus on preserving natural habitats highlights the need to strike a balance between nature and tourism.

This balance becomes particularly relevant when considering how coastal destinations, in particular, are promoting sustainable tourism.

South Africa’s 2 850 km of coastline is a massive domestic and international tourism draw. One need only look at the millions of South Africans who travel to coastal destinations every December to see how big a drawcard it really is.

The coastline, and the waters off it, are also a vital natural resource. The east coast, for example, is home to one of nature’s great migration events in the shape of the sardine run. The beaches of the southern and west coasts, meanwhile, are the only natural home of the African penguin. None of the turtle, whale, and dolphin species that either inhabit or visit local shores to feed, mate and give birth (or lay eggs in the case of turtles).

It is a pertinent question how coastal destinations can balance the economic benefits of tourism with the need to protect highly sensitive habitats. While there is no single answer, it’s clear that a combination of technology, education, and backing existing conservation efforts all have important roles to play.

From a technology perspective, a good example can be found in a Huawei-backed initiative to restore and propagate coral reefs in Mauritius. Coral reefs are present in under 1 percent of the world’s oceans, yet they support a quarter of marine species and provide food, livelihoods, safety, and beautiful tourist experiences to at least one billion people.

Unfortunately, pollution, overfishing, and rising sea temperatures caused by climate change are threatening their survival. According to the United Nations, the continuous rise in water temperatures led to the destruction of 14 percent of the world’s coral reefs between 2009 and 2018. Researchers additionally believe that if current trends continue, 90 percent of the world’s tropical corals will be wiped out by 2050, along with all the ecosystems that depend on them.

In response to coral degradation in Mauritius, Huawei Mauritius teamed up with local partner EcoMode Society in 2021 to implement a three-year conservation programme at Pointe-aux-Feuilles off the island’s east coast. Using a combination of cloud, underwater cameras, GPS, and 4G technologies, the team has created an innovative technical system that enables large-scale coral planting coupled with data collection, transmission, and analysis. To date, the project has helped restore more than 25 000 coral fragments with a further 1890 propagated.

“Projects like the one in Mauritius show how important a role technology can play in protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems,” said Kian Chen, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of Huawei South Africa.

“Such projects not only help ensure that the plants and wildlife that call those ecosystems home can continue to do so but also that these ecosystems continue to benefit local communities and the tourists who visit them. It’s not just coastal areas that are aided by such initiatives either. Our Tech4Nature programme supports numerous ecological protection projects in a wide variety of ecosystems around the globe.”

Technology can help play an educational role too, not least by exposing people who might not otherwise have access to the beauty of the natural world. Latest Sightings, which features video uploads of remarkable wildlife events in South Africa’s game reserves, some of which have gone viral, is an example of technology being used in this way.

Citizens can also help promote the balance of nature and tourism by supporting the organisations charged with conserving ecosystems, including those along the coast.

“As we mark South Africa’s Marine Month, the team at Wild Africa Fund would like to spotlight SANparks, and their national parks that also double as coastal reserves,” said Guy Jennings, Wild Africa Fund Southern African Director.

“We firmly believe that protecting our wildlife goes hand in hand with protecting our tourism jobs. Upkeeping these ecosystems is imperative to securing the future of Africa’s wildlife tourism, and it is essential we ensure the safest environment for both the animals and holiday-goers.”

For example, Tsitsikamma National Park is home to over 5km of inter-tidal, reef and deep-sea wildlife. From dolphins to whales, Tsitsikamma is the perfect place to experience the dramatic coastal scenery and actively contribute to conservation efforts at the same time.

“Conscious, sustainable tourism is the only way to ensure the continued protection of South African wildlife,” Jennings said.

The hotels that host visitors to South Africa’s most popular coastal destinations also have roles to play. One establishment that recognises this role is the Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront. Uniquely set along the aquatic biosphere that is the Western Cape’s Atlantic Seaboard, the hotel, its staff and all patrons are confronted daily with the reality of a need for wildlife and nature conservation.

Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront General Manager, Clinton Thom, said the hotel is a firm advocate for the well-being of the surrounding wildlife and makes a concerted effort to play an active role in local outreach activities.

“For example, this year, the team adopted two penguins at the seabird rescue organisation SANCCOB,” Jennings said.

Penguins are an iconic part of the Cape Town landscape, with tourists and hotel guests flocking to spots such as Boulders Beach in Simonstown to experience them up close. With guests always enquiring about the penguins, it made sense for the hotel to be involved in their protection.

The Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront’s penguins, which they named Bluey and Tobi, were rehabilitated and, after meeting all health requirements, were released back into the ocean.

“Hotels aren’t just able to drive sustainability through their own actions but can also help their guests participate in sustainability initiatives in the destinations they visit. I am proud of our team for not only being wonderful in their everyday roles but also for taking initiative and being good citizens of Cape Town,” Thom concluded.

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