Responsible tourism at its best
What is it that entices so many of us away from our homes and draws us to the far corners of the world? When we travel, we are subject to experiences and perspectives that are vastly different from those we have at home. We embark on new adventures, meet new people, immerse ourselves in new cultures, sample new delicacies and learn more about who we are and what we enjoy along the way. However, our wanderlust can have an adverse effect on the places we have gained so much from and if we aren’t careful, we may lose many of the cultures, wildlife, ancient relics and nature that lured us there in the first place.
Mass tourism often puts strain on public services, displaces local indigenous groups, damages the environment, increases cultural homogenisation and changes the landscape of a destination. Although tourism can bring in a lot of wealth, it is estimated that with current mass tourism structures, a mere 5-10% of it remains in the destination where it can benefit locals.
This is where responsible eco-tourism comes in. The principles of responsible eco-tourism are to preserve the natural environment and indigenous cultures whilst providing viable economic solutions for local people. When done well, it can even provide direct benefits to local people that draw them away from less sustainable activities such as poaching.
It’s up to us as travellers to make a choice about whether we have a beneficial impact on the people and places we visit, or a detrimental one, through the tourist services we use.
At Rainbow Tours, we always want to support and partner with organisations that are excelling in our values of responsible tourism and environmental sustainability and one of the best examples of this we’ve seen is at Imvelo Lodges Safari in Zimbabwe. Responsible eco-tourism is in their operational DNA and for over 20 years they have been driving positive change for the local people, wildlife and area through a range of community and conservation initiatives.
Africa Travel Specialist, Janine, by Victoria Falls
Our Africa Travel Specialist, Janine Bullen, recently visited Imvelo to see first-hand the powerful impact that their initiatives are having. This was her experience:
“I visited Zimbabwe in May and stayed at several of the Imvelo Safari Lodges hosted by Managing Director, Mark Butcher (Butch). I started my trip in Gorges Lodge, a peaceful and relatively secluded base not far from Victoria Falls and Batoka Gorge. The highlights of this lodge were the stunning views from every balcony and the resident pair of breeding eagles who soar past like clockwork at 4pm each day.
Eagle perched on a branch
From there I took the ‘Elephant Express’ to transfer to Bomani Camp. It’s a slow tram-train that takes you across the plains giving opportunities to view wildlife as you pass by. From Bomani we took a number of excursions into Hwange National Park where there is excellent game viewing and a huge population of elephants. Imvelo play a key role in supporting the upkeep of water pumps that provide a lifeline for wildlife, particularly the elephants, during the dry months. These pumps lead to waterholes which have underground hides and are the perfect place to watch elephants interact naturally from up close.
Close up of an elephant
I took a horse-riding outing through the bush with Hwange Horseback Safaris which was an amazing way to see more of the landscape and an experience I really enjoyed. There are a range of horse-riding options from a few hours for beginners to several days for more advanced riders. The trip was also unique in that we rode as a group on highly schooled horses instead of the typical single-file lines you find on many horse treks.
One of my favourite experiences with Imvelo was staying at Jozibanini Camp, a very rural and rustic camp that really takes you back to basics. I would say that it’s only suitable for travellers who don’t mind roughing it for a few nights and who aren’t afraid of a digital detox! But for me it was a rare and authentic experience that can be hard to find in our modern age. There are opportunities to walk out into the bush from the camp and see elephants very close up.
Janine close to a group of elephants
Another highlight was a canoe trip from Zambezi Sands Lodge in the relatively underrated Zambezi National Park near Victoria Falls. African Fish Eagles, elephants and buffalo line the Zambezi riverbanks - the waters are gentle and clear and the views inspiring.
What really blew me away about my time at the various Imvelo lodges was the guides. I’ve been on many safari trips all over Africa and I have to say the Imvelo guides are some of the best I’ve encountered. Having gone through six years of training they are extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic individuals. Many of them come from the villages surrounding the lodges and have been trained and nurtured by Imvelo over many years. Visitors also get the chance to head into the villages and nearby schools to meet locals, buy local crafts and see the impact of Imvelo’s work. Village children are invited on game drives, so they can have the same experience as the tourists whilst learning about the environment and wildlife and developing a love for the animals.
Local children in an Imvelo safari jeep
Zimbabwe has had a lot of bad press, but the people stick together and there’s a strong community and the resilience of the human spirit is evident. If anyone is reluctant to travel to Zimbabwe because of concerns about supporting the infamous government, understand that by visiting - especially if you stay at the Imvelo lodges - you are directly supporting the local people, area and wildlife. In my opinion, the country is very safe, particularly away from major cities and it remains relatively unaffected by major crime.”
Interview with Butch
Following Janine’s trip, we spoke to Butch in more detail about Imvelo’s work and the challenges he’s faced in trying to change the ethos of wildlife-based holidays and create a harmonious relationship between tourists, locals and wildlife:
Could you tell us a little about your background, how you founded Imvelo Lodges and what sparked your passion for improving the world around you?
During the 1980’s as a young ranger working for National Parks in Hwange and later as a Wildlife Officer working for Forestry Commission on the periphery of Hwange, we were involved daily in what I still describe today as the low intensity guerrilla warfare that was the human-wildlife conflict back then. We had continuous daily issues with ‘problem animals’ leaving the park and poachers entering it. By the 1990’s it became clear that we needed another way and the answer seemed obvious - stop paying lip service to our neighbouring communities and actually embed tourism amongst them so they became involved in a meaningful way. It was on the back of this dream that we started the lodges that eventually grew into the circuit Imvelo has today.
How do you feel the conservation and community initiatives run by Imvelo impact or change the guest experience compared to a typical safari?
I believe the safaris we offer are different because quite simply our guests are directly involved in something so much bigger. They don’t just go on carefully choreographed game drives and a ’village visit’. Every day our guests are involved in something much more. At several of our camps the staff who take care of our guests walk home to their village after work and have dinner with their families. The logistics that put lunch on our guest’s tables also drops off the food at nearby schools that provides the kids’ lunches, half a million of them last year. The guides that conduct our guests on their game drives aren’t just Zimbabwean guides they are youngsters from the village that our guests visit, they are showing you around the area and the community they grew up in. Our guests are not just visitors, they become part of it all.
Local chef cooking
How has increased tourism to your lodges benefitted the parks and local area? How can visitors get involved with what you do?
The benefits are almost too many to list and count, but perhaps one of the most telling is that on the Ngamo plains where previously we would arrest 10-20 poachers per day, today you are hard pressed to ever find the tracks of a single poacher. In a community that had never had a single kid make it to tertiary education, today we have 18 studying at tertiary level. The communities around Hwange that previously had never even seen a dentist now get regular annual dental care through our Smile and See safari that is in its 9th year and treated its 27,000th patient - for free. Our visitors get involved at every level, whether it be just chatting to a school kid struggling with English, to supporting our lodge staff to make a living from an activity other than poaching, buying locally crafted baskets from mothers who use the cash to pay school fees. But as I said, the list is endless.
How have local people responded to your initiatives?
It’s been a fascinating journey. Where in the 1990’s we had massive pushback from communities who did not trust us ‘wildlife people’, today my biggest personal challenge is trying to fulfil the aspirations of all the many communities still without support begging us to come and open lodges and tourism projects in their areas.
What are your plans for Imvelo’s future?
If I had my way we would open up a string of lodges around the border of Hwange, each embedded in a separate community and each with a chunk of our precious Hwange and a community wildlife sanctuary to take care of, to replace the old model from Greater Kruger where essentially a lot of wealthy private landowners have got wealthier, with a new model where previously disenfranchised villagers become the new ‘wealthy’ tourism beneficiaries that provide the buffer to conserve Hwange and its wildlife for posterity. BUT and this is the BIG BUT if we cannot increase tourist numbers to our country and our beloved Hwange, this may just remain a dream for quite a few years to come...
What have been the most rewarding aspects of the initiatives for you personally?
So many! But perhaps the best are the ones I see frequently:
• When I see Limukani, the orphan we took on to chop firewood at Bomani because he was starving, who’s now a sous chef at Camelthorn, beaming when his dessert is praised by one of our overseas guests;
• When Vusa the bright-eyed young boy who came to us from Ngamo village drives into camp after guiding another brilliant game drive with a carload of excited guests after he’s been following the Wild dogs hunting on the plains he used to herd his Dad’s cattle across;
• When I arrive at Jozibanini where 130 elephants were once poisoned and many more died of thirst, now everywhere you look healthy elephants are pouring into our solar hybrid powered waterhole;
• On our Smile and See Safaris when I see off busloads of people who had arrived earlier scared and in pain, now leave laughing and smiling;
• When I see Cindy our beloved cheetah from whom my daughters and I removed a terrible snare, now roaming the plains with her strong healthy boy cub;
• Every time I see The Elephant Express
This list is also endless!
Cheetah on the tracks of the Elephant Express
What have been the biggest challenges in finding harmony between nature, locals and tourists?
Personally, I believe the single biggest challenge to creating a harmony has been to try to get the tourists and operators to change their mindset so we can get all three components together in a meaningful manner. When we first built Gorges lodge in Victoria Falls, embedded amongst the disenfranchised communities that live next to the Falls, the refrain we heard was (and sadly still hear all too often) is “… you’re too far out of town”. Both many tourists and short-sighted operators miss that that is the whole point, we want to be out of town away from government and private controlled land and want to be on the community’s land and be able to devolve all the benefits to the people who need it most and frankly, deserve it most. We believe we should be building tourism projects on the periphery of Parks to better benefit the people who live around these Parks and to reduce and mitigate the effects of the human-wildlife conflict that exists on the periphery. Tourism and travel are ever-increasingly popular.
What lessons could travellers, travel providers and tourism agencies learn from your work at Imvelo?
I believe responsible eco-tourism might be the single most powerful weapon we have in our conservation arsenal in Africa in the 21st century. At Imvelo we’ve seen how the establishment of the most very basic adventure camp in our portfolio at Jozibanini that runs with tiny occupancy percentages, was sufficient to turn the tide in re-opening what had been a huge forgotten and abandoned portion of Hwange National Park that had been rife with large scale elephant poisoning. We have seen how simply taking our guests to visit our communities on the edge of Hwange and encouraging them to buy curios and mementoes of their safari at that village’s market rather than at the Jo’burg duty free has been sufficient in just a few years to transform the community from one of the poorest to one of the most successful in the District. We have seen the power of not staffing our lodges with hotel school trained people from town, but rather hiring bright youngsters from the villages within walking distance of our lodges and teaching them the skills they need and giving them the jobs instead, what they lack in training they more than make up for in enthusiasm!
How can people who haven’t visited Imvelo Safari lodges get involved and support your work?
Plan their next holiday to be a Zimbabwean safari with Rainbow Tours and ask their Travel Specialist to make sure Imvelo Safari Lodges are in their itinerary! Visit our website and investigate our community and conservation initiatives. Climate change has triggered one of the worst droughts ever on record in southern Africa and Hwange’s wildlife and people need all the help they can get.
Feeling inspired? Take a look at our Zimbabwe holidays. Our Magical Zimbabwe Safari stays exclusively at Imvelo's lodges.
To learn more about Imvelo Safari Lodges, visit their website here
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Find more inspiration on our social media #ResponsibleRainbow