An ecotourism rating system for South African National Parks
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Ecological travel (ecotourism) is the “next big thing”. To experience nature up close and personal is to backpack off the beaten track and these days this is the “hippest” way to travel. Ecotourism is seen as the most excelling fragment of tourism and The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) views tourism in an unspoilt natural area (ecotourism) as the fastest growing concept of the tourism industry. Ecotourism has evolved into speciality travel; including an assorted – and often confusing – collection of events and tourism types, for example bird watching, methodical study, photography, diving and trekking. Ecotourism takes place in unspoilt natural areas, lodges and conservation areas such as national parks. South African National Parks, (SANParks), whom manages a system of parks, and signifies the indigenous fauna & flora, landscapes and associated cultural heritage of the country. National parks offers facilities for overnight tourist, with a range of accommodation, in arid, coastal, mountain and bush veld habitats. A variety of incomparable adventure tourism opportunities, for example game viewing, bush walks, canoeing and exposure to cultural and historical experiences are offered by these national parks. SANParks’ objectives are the insurance of protection, conservation and management of the protected areas for the purposes they were declared. The key aspect of SANParks’ management operations is ecotourism. The three areas that the management of parks cover are general management which include finance and marketing; conservation management which consists of wildlife counting, sales of wildlife, environment etc. and ecotourism management which includes aspects such as camps, accommodation, game drives and picnic areas. Because ecotourism as an important aspect of park management and is one of SANParks’ core pillars, the main concern is which strategies and policies are in place in order to provide tourists with an ecotourism experience within South African National Parks? Tourism products (especially accommodation products) need to recognize that customers (tourists) have certain expectations and these expectations must be met. One way in meeting these expectations is to adhere to tourists’ perceptions and satisfaction as well as to provide a quality service. It is also seen as one of the most important influences on productivity and profit of a tourism organisation. One approach to obtain customer satisfaction and meeting expectations is to implement a grading/rating system. When managers and owners of accommodation and tourism products want to convince tourists of the quality of the organisation or tourism product iii that is being presented, a classification or rating system plays an important role to communicate this vital issue. South Africa has various rating systems / schemes, however there are no acknowledged rating systems for ecotourism products in South Africa National Parks. The shortcomings of these current rating systems are that they rate mostly the hospitality and accommodation sectors. These criteria’s tend to focus on the following: building exteriors, bedrooms, bathrooms, public area, general facilities, general services, housekeeping services, additional facilities and responsible environmental and business practices. None of these schemes focus primarily on ecotourism principles. These systems need to be adapted for nature/wildlife products and the problem that this study will address is to develop an ecotourism rating system for South African National Parks. It is essential to have a rating system in place to compete in the global world where ecotourism and green aspects are important and to deliver a valuable service. Therefore the problem that this research will addresses, is to develop an ecotourism rating system for South Africa National Parks. The research approach used in this study included quantitative methodologies. An explorative research approach was followed through an online questionnaire with the aim of determining the perceptions of visitors about the perceptions of respondents regarding the importance of specific ecotourism principles. These constructs were determined through a literature review. The sources consulted included the following: De Witt, 2011; Du Plessis, 2010; Geldenhuys, 2009:5; Saayman, 2009:70; Fennell, 2008:23; Blamey, 2001:12; Eagles, 1996; Dingwall and Gordon, 1996. The questionnaire was distributed electronically on the SANParks’ website. Data collection took place during April 2013. A total of 308 responses were received during the period of data collection. The results of the empirical quantitative data was analysed by the Statistical Consultation Services at the North-West University by means of the SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Sciences) software programme. The statistical methods utilised included descriptive statistics and causal research. The descriptive statistics includes the demographic profile of respondents, the principles of ecotourism, the factor analysis and the factor correlation matrix. The causal research includes the t-test and the analysis of variance (ANOVA). The results of the descriptive data indicated that the language most spoken by the respondents was primarily English followed by Afrikaans. The greater number of respondents was married and live in Gauteng. They were well educated with a diploma or degree. Most of the respondents were Wild Card holders and supports conservation organisations, such as Rhino Conservation, followed by SA Wildlife, SANParks Honorary Rangers, Green Peace, UNITE against poaching iv and World Wide Fund for Nature. Respondents’ understanding of responsible ecotourism is conserving and protecting nature, has a low impact on the environment and has an educational travel experience in any environment. The key principles of ecotourism, namely conservation of nature, conservation of culture, community involvement, environmental education, tourist satisfaction, responsible tourism practices, environmental education, tourist satisfaction, responsible tourism practices, role players participating in ecotourism – the tourist and accommodation and were rated based on a five point Likert scale. The principles that were rated with the highest mean values included: water sources are protected (4.83); tourists are told not to touch or disturb birds and animals (4.76); correct disposal of waste, including cigarette butts, into allocated waste bins is encouraged (4.73); dripping taps are fixed immediately (4.70) and noise is limited in natural areas (4.70). The exploratory factor analysis was conducted on the principles identified, they were as follows: Conservation of nature had five factors namely, Conservation; Controlled development; Environmental friendly; Alien plants; Water saving measurements. Conservation of culture had two factors namely, Local community involvement; Benefit for community. Community involvement had two factors namely, Benefits; Education for community. Environmental education had only one factor namely, learning experiences. Tourist satisfaction also had one factor namely, Tourist satisfaction. Responsible tourism practices had three factors namely, recycling and environmental friendly practices; Interaction with nature; Responsible practices. Tourist participation in ecotourism had one factor namely, Informed tourist. Accommodation had three factors namely, Eco-friendly practices and development; Touch the earth lightly; Environmental friendly accommodation. Group statistics namely t-tests and ANOVA’s were performed to determine whether there were any significant differences between the factors identified from the ecotourism principles. The test was used to compare the socio-demographic aspects, namely home language (English and Afrikaans) with all the ecotourism principles. The t-test was used to compare behavioural aspects, namely Wild Card holders (Yes and No) with all the ecotourism principles. This were done to determine if the respondents’ opinions differ about principles in terms of Wild Card holders or non-Wild Card holders. The ANOVA was tested for socio-demographic aspects of respondents namely, marital status. The ANOVA was tested for socio-demographic aspects of respondents namely, level of education. The research made the following contributions to the field of ecotourism. These contributions are made in three categories namely, literature, methodology and practical contributions: • It is the first time that literature about ecotourism are combined to identify principles and constructs. All rating criteria was investigated to do this. • First time that different rating systems regarding ecotourism was identified, analysed and compared to each other. • Added to the literature on future trends of ecotourism which will assist in the planning and development of ecotourism products as well as rating systems. • The rating system can assist in future ecotourism development in protected areas as the most important principle for ecotourism have been identified. • The research contribute to more environment friendly development of ecotourism accommodation products • It is the first time that all relevant aspects of ecotourism was identified and developed into questionnaire that test ecotourism rating constructs and principles. • The research also contribute to the fact that one knows what are the ecotourism constructs that are seen as important by the visitor to national parks. The empirical results also determined statistical differences of the constructs and principles regarding socio-demographic and behavioural aspects of the visitors to national parks in South Africa. • This was the first time that a specific rating system was developed for South African National Parks. • This rating system can also be adapted to other conservation areas such as game reserves and game farms.