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The Elephant in the Room

March 22, 2017

As you may already know, the Western Cape faces extreme drought conditions while it waits for the rain season to start. But in spite of the obvious discussions and concerns, it seems that no-one has the courage to raise an issue that can only be regarded as the elephant in the room with regards to the current water shortage in the Province, and to a growing arrogance by the tourism and hospitality sector in the face of this crisis.


In spite of the fact that the Western Cape faces perhaps the worst drought in the past ten years, the hospitality and tourism sectors have done little more than pay lip-service to the disaster facing the Province. Calls for more responsible use and management of water have fallen on deaf ears by this sector – regarded generally as the third highest consumer of water after manufacturing and agriculture in South Africa, based on their perceived ability to pay for what they use.


To best illustrate this problem, consider that each hotel/guest-house/lodge visitor to the City consumes as much as 250 litres of water a day, and that at current occupancy levels in the City of Cape Town alone, this represents a staggering 4.8 million litres of water being consumed every day across this sector. If we consider that less than twenty of the estimated 350 accommodation establishments in the City have been independently assessed and certified on their sustainability performance, the massive consumption in this sector should be a cause of concern.


The largest number of rooms in the city are represented by the ‘big three’ brands, and not one of the hotels in these brands is currently certified. They all claim to be exercising restraint on water use, but as there is no way to ascertain or verify their claims, no-one really knows. The same could be said for almost every other formal (and informal) accommodation facility in the City.  And the problem doesn’t end there either. This same attitude extends to issues such as energy consumption, waste management and even social development and unless the government of the Province (let’s not even start on the National government) takes a stand and starts to require businesses in this sector to become more than just verbally compliant and considerate of the greater impact they have, the current water shortages will seem like a mild inconvenience in years to come.


The argument that hoteliers are saving water in their own ways doesn’t cut it anymore. In the past year, I have yet to come across one hotel or resort in the Province that has budgeted or planned to save water, energy or waste as part of their business strategy. In fact, almost every business has budgeted for increases in the costs associated with expected increased consumption or price, preferring to rather pass this on to their guests and clients.  South Africa currently has one of the world’s highest rate-creep in hotel costs – and a large part of this is due to our perpetual habit of adding increases to our rates rather than by controlling our consumption and subsequent costs. Why would the industry care – they can obviously afford the costs!


There is no national direction in this respect and while there are a number of certification labels available to the industry, the general attitude is “… unless we are required to implement responsible business practice, we won’t”, and this has long-term risks for our greatest tourist region. On a national level, there are less than 100 certified responsible tourist accommodation facilities in the more than twelve thousand graded establishments, and in spite of a national standard for Responsible Tourism having been released and introduced by the DOT in 2014, we are no closer as a country to achieving responsible tourism patterns than say.. Mongolia!


If we add allied sectors to the mix – and look only at the golf industry, Cape Town and the Western Cape face perhaps some of the greatest challenges in our country today.  A championship golf course consumes almost a million litres of water a day, and believe me when I say that in spite of the shortages faced by the City and the Province in recent months, this has not changed.  The reason for this is that golf courses have had the money in the past to invest in boreholes and pumps that extract water in vast quantities from already fragile natural sources (rivers and aquifers). Their consumption is generally not reflected in the Province’s consumption data and thus, golf courses ‘fly below the radar’ in the monitoring process.  Once again, attitudes of greed and a lack of accountability at community level fuel this consumptive behavior, further adding to the ‘exclusivity’ of this game and the marginalisation of local communities or their needs. It is only a matter of time before this inequality – and blatant disregard for fair play, ignites into a battle for control of water in the Province.


Perhaps what I am trying to say is that the days of leaving the decision to be better and more responsible businesses needs to be taken out of the hands of greedy and myopic business owners and their pliable industry associations, and brought into the main debate about licences and trading rights.  How, I ask, can the Western Cape, Cape Town or the country in general, ever hope to be taken seriously as a responsible destination, if we can’t get the basics right?  This is the City that gave the World the Cape Town Declaration on responsible tourism – and yet, there is no effort to live this commitment in 90% of the hotels and other tourism products represented in the region. That WESGRO and SA Tourism continue to market businesses that clearly don't 'get it' is in itself a question worth asking and it will take astute political, organisational and business skill to address the problem.


Let’s stop believing that ordinary residents are to blame for the problem while hotels, resorts, golf courses and other tourism businesses conduct themselves as though its ‘business as usual’. It cannot be business as usual in this Province or in the country as a whole – because if it stays this way, the drought and the myriad of social and community challenges faced by Government – and which are being contributed to by this industry, will only get worse. Resources and their responsible use needs more than a showcase walk-about by the Cape Town Mayor, and some rather questionable ‘naming and shaming’ that had dubious results.  It calls for stronger action by the National Department of Tourism and its acolytes at SA Tourism.  It will take more than the usual platitudes and sound-bytes from our Minister for Tourism.  It demands competent leadership and serious action and political will to make this happen.


The time has come to start making the hotel and tourism sector compliant and help them get their house in order. Lets see a raft of benefits for compliance - and equally important, a series of trade- and finance-related penalties for those that just won't listen.  To the Mandarins of the industry - start taking our children's future seriously and stop assuming the goodwill of an increasingly angry consumer is real. Self-validation or monitoring is not working, so where to now?


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