Truth or Dare
This week, a respected newspaper published a stringer article by their travel and leisure writer that raised the ire of many in the travel and tourism sector that have worked hard at creating and recognising sustainable tourist accommodation products in South Africa.
The article in question celebrated the fact that South Africa had some of the highest number of sustainable accommodation options in a number of countries reviewed by a booking agency, and this was something to be proud of. Under normal circumstances, this would indeed be a grand event worthy of a memorable celebration, but in the real world, it was a claim that was so far from the truth as to fall into a parallel universe!
'But what's the problem' I hear you say. The problem is that these often repeated claims are damaging brand South Africa. They drown-out the deserving gem's in our inventory that actually try - and sometimes even achieve, that sustainability we seek. It Harms our environment by continuing to do the same old things under the guise of enlightenment, and they harm our communities and the very things we hope will attract visitors. It shows a high degree of immaturity in the leadership of this industry when these terms and words are so easily abused in the name of profit, and it's time that those that know the difference become the voice of reason on an otherwise sinking ship.
The fact is that this country has the lowest number of recognised, independently verified sustainable tourism products of any of the major tourism destinations worldwide. Not only that, but we have an institutionalised endorsement of false claims and greenwashing bettered by no other country in the world. Our legal protection of terminology such as 'Green'; 'Sustainable'; 'Eco-rated' and others is sadly lacking, allowing charlatans free-range over the well-being of our destination. And we seem to wear this all as a badge of honour while trying hard to attract that elusive sustainability Dollar.
Hoteliers, guest house operators and owners of any range of tourist accommodation in South Africa seem oblivious to the reality that sustainability is a lot more than changing light bulbs and separating waste. They fail to see the more intrinsic elements of sustainability - and that this goes further than their own parking area. Yet, operators of some of the largest hospitality groups in this country - and flag-carriers of foreign brands, continue to promote themselves as being sustainable and environmentally responsible. Some even go a step further by generating worthless Sustainability Reports in order to meet the listing requirements of the JSE or their own ego's. But the one thing they all have in common is the fact that they are not only greenwashing a serious problem in this country - but that they are also damaging the national brand as a trusted, sustainable destination.
And it's not only the hotel sector that needs to take a very critical view of their practices. Game lodges, reserves and other nature-based accommodation providers are amongst the most guilty of embellishment while guest houses, lodges and other private establishments simply follow suit. Either out of ignorance or simple malevolence, this industry is collectively responsible for the damage that is being caused to our reputation as a country. We assume that travellers are fools and that the 'responsible' visitor will forgive the sustainability lie, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Consumers forgive many things, but being misled or lied to about the values they hold ranks up there with infidelity.
Unless a business is prepared to do more than just talk-the-talk about sustainability and do what is necessary to deserve the accolades and titles they so glibly claim, this country will fall further and further behind the curve of international sustainability and market expectations. And achieving these lofty goals takes a commitment. It takes a commitment to truly implement management and CSR systems that achieve their sustainability objectives and - and this is the crucial element missing - opening themselves to independent verification and critique.
Calling yourself the most sustainable business is easy. Repeat a lie often enough, and there are those with low moral standards and expectations of greatness that will believe your lies. But show by example that you understand what sustainability means - and have the guts to be judged by others more qualified in the subject - and you will achieve that sustainability Dollar pouring into your bank account. But, that takes leadership and guts - sadly, something that is lacking in South Africa's hospitality leadership corps today.
Following the COVID crisis we have just come through, there are no properties in this country that can honestly say they hold or meet any internationally recognised standard of sustainability. There are many that will continue to claim their status - according to their own personal opinions - or which hide behind some international label that bears little or no relevance to local conditions, but without that important external verification to eliminate the pretenders out there, we all lose. We have a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset sustainability in this industry. Don't waste it.