Skip to main content


South Africa recognises the tourism sector’s potential...

to bring about economic growth and employment creation. As a result the country has put in place tourism specific policies and legislation aimed at boosting the development and growth of this industry. In addition, macro-economic development policies of the country such as the National Development Plan (NDP)  and the New Growth Path (NGP) position tourism as a priority area for growth. The significance of the Ecotourism sub-sector to socio-economic development cannot be overstated. Ecotourism is a common denominator for the wildlife industry, the majority of conservation-related business opportunities fall within the ecotourism industry, and the sub-sector has significant transformation potential (NBES, 2015).

The South African founding policy document of tourism, the Tourism White Paper (2006), defines Ecotourism as:

“Environmentally and socially responsible travel to natural or near natural areas that promotes conservation, has low visitor impact and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local people."

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) recognises three key elements to defining ecotourism:


  • Offers market-linked long-term solutions where ecotourism provides effective economic incentives for conserving and enhancing bio-cultural diversity and helps protect the natural and cultural heritage of our beautiful planet.


  • Increase local capacity building and employment opportunities.
  • Ecotourism is an effective vehicle for empowering local communities around the world to fight against poverty and to achieve sustainable development.

Education and interpretation

  • The emphasis is on enriching personal experiences and environmental awareness through interpretation.
  • Ecotourism promotes greater understanding and appreciation for nature, local society, and culture.

Ecotourism sustains and benefits local communities and the economy by involving them in the development and maintenance of the tourist industry. It also stimulates local traditions through the use of local produce and supports local handicrafts.

These benefits spill over into other services including transport, accommodation, and infrastructure stimulating income generation and Biodiversity Economy growth.

Ecotourism sustainable, responsible and alternative tourism activities include:

  • Wildlife Safaris and Hunting
  • Cultural Activities
  • Coastal, marine and ocean tourism
  • Nature Outdoor and Adventure activities

The main Ecotourism Assets are derived from South Africa’s natural and biodiverse assets such as; Protected Areas, Conservations Area, Wildlife, Parks and Gardens, Coastal Oceans and World Heritage Sites.

Ecotourism in South Africa generates awareness about the uniqueness of South Africa’s natural heritage, which enhances the conservation efforts of endangered species, and allows one to explore the rich cultural diversity of communities of local culture and traditions.

The Ecotourism Value Chain

Ecotourism is expected to generate income and provide job opportunities in South Africa while maintaining biodiversity and conservation efforts.

Ecotourism development requires there to be a positive link between environmental, economic and socio-cultural sustainability on the one side and financial stability on the other (Weaver, 2008). Ecotourism is largely regarded as a niche market within the broader tourism market due to its focus on conservation, communities and education.

National and provincial parks, as well as private game reserves, are now including the concept of involving and benefiting local communities in their mission statements. Conservation and careful management of scarce resources is increasingly becoming a priority.

Ecotourism has merged the typical tourist experience with the opportunity to help the environment and/or local community at the same time. It also provides the potential to bring financial resources into poverty-stricken areas and improve people’s livelihoods while ensuring environmental sustainability. Overall, the expectation is that ecotourism may ultimately reduce levels of poverty, raise education and awareness levels, create jobs, and ensure the country’s natural and cultural resources are conserved sustainably.

The following aspects of the Ecotourism economy are identified as drivers of growth:

  • South Africa is endowed with a unique natural and cultural landscape
  • Ecotourism is being embraced as a key development strategy
  • The global shift towards ‘green thinking’ and awareness is expanding
  • Supporting legislative and policy frameworks exist in South Africa
  • Visibility, tourist satisfaction and changing population dynamics
  • New market and product development opportunities are emerging

Top Biodiversity Ecotourism Sites

Cape Floristic Region is located at the south-western extremity of South Africa. It is one of the world’s great centres of terrestrial biodiversity. The extended property includes national parks, nature reserves, wilderness areas, State forests and mountain catchment areas. These elements add a significant number of endemic species associated with the Fynbos vegetation, a fine-leaved sclerophyllic shrubland adapted to both a Mediterranean climate and periodic fires, which is unique to the Cape Floral Region.

Succulent Karoo Biodiversity Hotspot The Succulent Karoo biome is an internationally recognized biodiversity hotspot, and is the world's only arid hotspot. The 116 000 km2 biome extends from the south-west through the north-western areas of South Africa and into southern Namibia. The biome is home to 6 356 plant species, 40% of which are endemic and 936 (17%) of which are listed in the Red Data Book. In addition to its floral diversity, 27 amphibian species, 29% of which are endemic; 121 reptile species, 20% of which are endemic; 68 mammal species, 9% of which are endemic; and 431 bird species have thus far been recorded.

Maputaland Pondoland Albany Biodiversity Hotspot Stretching along the east coast of southern Africa, from southern Mozambique through KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape in South Africa, the recently recognized Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Hotspot is an exceptionally diverse area.The hotspot is the remarkable meeting point of six of South Africa’s eight major vegetation types. The region boasts an unusually high number of unique species and ecosystems, with one type of forest (sand forest), six types of bushveld and five types of grassland restricted to the hotspot, as well as an entire vegetation type called “subtropical thicket.”

uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park, The Maloti-Drakensberg Park is a transnational property composed of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg National Park in South Africa and the Sehlathebe National Park in Lesotho. The site has exceptional natural beauty in its soaring basaltic buttresses, incisive dramatic cutbacks, and golden sandstone ramparts as well as visually spectacular sculptured arches, caves, cliffs, pillars and rock pools. The site's diversity of habitats protects a high level of endemic and globally important plants. The site harbours endangered species such as the Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres) and the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus). Lesotho’s Sehlabathebe National Park also harbours the Maloti minnow (Pseudobarbus quathlambae), a critically endangered fish species only found in this park. This spectacular natural site contains many caves and rock-shelters with the largest and most concentrated group of paintings in Africa south of the Sahara. They represent the spiritual life of the San people, who lived in this area over a period of 4,000 years.

Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape is set hard against the northern border of South Africa, joining Zimbabwe and Botswana. It is an open, expansive savannah landscape at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers. Mapungubwe developed into the largest kingdom in the sub-continent before it was abandoned in the 14th century. What survives are the almost untouched remains of the palace sites and also the entire settlement area dependent upon them, as well as two earlier capital sites, the whole presenting an unrivalled picture of the development of social and political structures over some 400 years.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The ongoing fluvial, marine and aeolian processes in the site have produced a variety of landforms, including coral reefs, long sandy beaches, coastal dunes, lake systems, swamps, and extensive reed and papyrus wetlands. The interplay of the park's environmental heterogeneity with major floods and coastal storms and a transitional geographic location between subtropical and tropical Africa has resulted in exceptional species diversity and ongoing speciation. The mosaic of landforms and habitat types creates breathtaking scenic vistas. The site contains critical habitats for a range of species from Africa's marine, wetland and savannah environments.

Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape. The 160,000 ha Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape of dramatic mountainous desert in north-western South Africa constitutes a cultural landscape communally owned and managed. This site sustains the semi-nomadic pastoral livelihood of the Nama people, reflecting seasonal patterns that may have persisted for as much as two millennia in southern Africa. It is the only area where the Nama still construct portable rush-mat houses (haru om ) and includes seasonal migrations and grazing grounds, together with stock posts. The pastoralists collect medicinal and other plants and have a strong oral tradition associated with different places and attributes of the landscape.