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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Conscious tourism in a crisis: how a visit can shed light on a stricken country

Do boycotts help or should you stay away? Rosemary Behan looks at why places like Cape Town needn't be a washout

South Africans collecting drinking water from pipes fed by an underground spring, in St James, about 25km from the city centre in Cape Town / AFP
South Africans collecting drinking water from pipes fed by an underground spring, in St James, about 25km from the city centre in Cape Town / AFP

Crisis? Water crisis. Day Zero, the apocalyptic point where the reservoirs and other sources of fresh drinking water supplying the city of Cape Town are predicted to run out, was forecast to arrive on April 16. Thanks to recent reductions in consumption, the current estimate is May 11, although the situation is still critical.

At this point, which comes at the end of a three-year drought in the Western Cape, taps will soon be switched off and each resident will be rationed to 25 litres per person per day, to be collected from various designated pick-up points. Already, people have been queueing up to stockpile water from any available source and drastic measures are being taken in homes in order to comply with the current restriction of 50 litres per person per day (various charts and calculators are on hand to help judge how much each activity uses).

And while the causes of the crisis are political as well as environmental – a recent article by David W Oliver, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Global Change Institute at the University of Witwatersrand points to “national government’s bungled water allocations to agriculture” – it’s the entire region which is paying the price.

Of course, this includes tourism, which last year accounted for nine per cent of economic output in South Africa, equivalent to Dh125 billion. Cape Town, the most popular destination in the country, sees millions of visitors each year. Conferences scheduled for spring have been postponed or relocated and there have been cancellations.

But should tourists visit destinations with such intense water shortages? In the case of Cape Town and the surrounding area, there’s an ethical dilemma: go there and put added strain on the system or cancel and let down countless people whose livelihoods depend on tourism.

As someone who stays in hotels frequently for work, I’m increasingly bothered by the apparent endless wastage of water through constant cleaning, needless laundering of endless towels and sheets and the lack of oversight in terms of guests’ use of fast-filling baths or "rain bath” showers. I love a hot bath, occasionally, and a steam room, but I don’t need six sets of fresh pillowcases every day and I shouldn’t be allowed to leave the shower running for five minutes while it “heats up”. I’ve seen basin taps left on in poolside bathrooms and kitchen taps left on almost permanently.

There have been anecdotal reports of tourists arriving in Cape Town and asking hotels about the water crisis and what the restrictions mean for them and being told it’s “business as usual”. Last week, a guest at a holiday flat was filmed washing their rental car.

Yet on the plus side, there’s a growing acceptance that tourists should face the same restrictions as everyone else. Many hotels are spearheading a more eco-conscious mentality by providing guests with illustrated notices detailing what can be done with how much water. Proprietors have drained swimming pools and stopped any non-essential watering of plants. Plugs have been removed from baths (a bath uses 80 litres, three times the Day Zero limit) and low-pressure nozzles fitted to taps and shower heads. Toilet cisterns have been modified and guests are being implored to re-use towels and not have sheets replaced unless necessary.

All this can be seen as positive and there is yet more tourists can do. Before booking, ask your hotel what water-saving initiatives are in place. Don’t let the tap run while cleaning your teeth. Don’t flush the toilet unnecessarily. Practice taking a shower in 90 seconds or less. And don’t just do this on holiday in South Africa: practice these steps everywhere. One doesn’t have to look further than the Middle East for other examples of water scarcity.

Thanks to its conspicuous nature, the tourist industry is an easy target for critics. Yet it can have a positive impact and help put the spotlight back on the sectors where most wastage occurs, out of sight and out of mind. Let’s encourage hoteliers to do the right thing by asking questions and showing that we don’t expect endless water wastage in return for our money.

Other ethical dilemmas in the tourist industry can be solved through conscious travel. I don’t believe in boycotts, as they usually impact the wrong people, though South Africa under apartheid in the 1980s would have been an exception. Ironically the boycott of tourism to Myanmar, so beloved of middle-class liberals when Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, is more appropriate now.

Those who argue against visiting North Korea might look more closely at human rights abuses in a whole range of places and consider that for countries whose raison d’etre is isolation and extreme self-reliance, the arrival of a single conscious visitor is a radical act. Just look at this week’s spectacle at the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

So tourists should not abandon Cape Town – but if you go, don't equate luxury with endless water usage. Spend your money with responsible operators. Take this opportunity not to sequester yourself by the pool but swim in the sea. Go camping. Do as the locals do and see the world through their eyes, and take strength from their ever-more imaginative ways of surviving.

Perhaps, following this crisis, all hotels could impose restrictions on water use, with an allocation for each guest per night. Guest bathrooms could be metered and any excessive use charged for, just like any other extra.

There has never been a better time for travellers to exercise an eco-forward mentality by treating water like the commodity it has become – all over the world.

Rosemary Behan is The National’s travel editor