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Environmental Stewardship in Adventure Tourism


The moist in the masks gladly make the tiredness in my eyes unseen for the trained eyes of my sherpa. What Edmund Hillary experienced decades ago became my dream since childhood. I want to look down onto the rest of the world from atop of Everest. Through the misty glaze the stack of oxygen canisters that gave colour to Lhotse on the horizon, I recognise the strong contrast of expectations and reality... The bright colour of pollution stands clear clean against the clear skies of Lhotse in the background. A hundred years ago the 1924 Everest expedition resulted in one of the greatest mysteries on Everest to this day: George Mallory and Andrew Irvine made a final documented ascent of Everest in 1953, using the southeast ridge route. We wear our North Face t-shirts to day even without knowing what it represents...

But let's talk waste on Everest. According to the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), the spring 2023 climbing season at Everest Base Camp generated 75 tonnes of waste, incouding 21,507kg of human waste. It is unclear how much human waste is left on the higher slopes. An estimate for 2019 was 7,200kg per season (12 Feb 2024; Explorers Web).

Almost a century after Everest became a tourist destination, deaths condensed in one stark graph illustrated a huge number of people were recorded (Credit: Nigel Hawtin, reproduced with kind permission). Since the early 1920s, more than 330 climbers have died on Mount Everest. 200 bodies remain on the mountain, the most famous one being "Green Boots" (31 Jan 2024).

The Development.

Adventure Tourism is the game we love, it's in our blood, we dream about it and we pursue this dream profession as guides and explorers. Open skies, clear landscapes and dramatic sunsets do not work with piles of pollution in the foreground. What's balance?

The importance of environmental conservation and a policy of promoting "Leave No Trace" in adventure tourism is a fait accompli. The challenge is not to define principles protecting our natural resources. That's been done over and over in the past. We need something else. Training, education and legislation will have to follow in each others footsteps leading towards a future strategy.

At some point we will need to say no to development and sometimes allow new trails to see daylight. It will always be a balance between moving forward and or slowing development down. I strongly question the development of trails like what we've seen in Wellington against the backdrop of the Hawequa moutnains. The excuse for this trail development was that it was creating job opportunities and available funds by the Cape Epic mountain bike event. Permission was granted after following the correct procedures in obtaining permits to build this trail. The route features 3000m of elevation gain over 70km across the absolutely stunning Hawequa mountain range (Jason Boulle, Jan 29, 2023, Bike Course Previews). It is a piece of pioneering work for trail builders but the mountain will never look the same in our lifetime again. So let's take a step towards stewardship in our industry.

The Cliffhanger Trail climb starts at kilometre 27 of the Imbuko Big 5 MTB Challenge and the descent ends at kilometre 47. This is 11km's of climbing with 900 meters of elevation gain. The 9km of descending is dropping 950 meters.

But what will sound development strategy look like with an ideal outcome in mind? The foud guidelines of sustainable development are as follows;

  1. Conservation.

  2. Community.

  3. Commerce.

  4. Culture.

These principles, however, are the important guidelines to allow sustainable development to find it's way foward. Conserve if you can, incorporate the community in the development, make some money and understand something of the culture of the community where you launch your project. With these guidelines in mind I'm keen to introduce strategy to stimulate a turnaround into our industry.

Back to the Future.

Adventure Tourism is a tourism trip that includes at least two of the following three elements - physical activity, natural environment and cultural immersion. It often involves risk and some skill from the tourist to take part in the activity. What happened at a UNESCO site in the Asia-Pacific area, could help to structure incentives for good practice and we offer this example as an option to motivate the development of adventure tourism products into the right direction.

The strategy UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards process, turned the conservation process around by stimulating private-sector initiatives with an award for a conservation sensitive approach. The following criteria principles may help our own industry;

Principle 1: Collective mapping of the project and or development, its hierarchies, symbolic language, and associations is a pre-requisite for appropriate and successful conservation.

Principle 2: Tangible outcomes that derive from the project, the original initiative, value proposition of the development, and continuing significance from tangible conservation practice in the long term strategy must be illustrated.

Principle 3: Authenticity, the defining characteristic of development, the timeline of the project and the longterm benefits of the initiative.

Principle 4: The conservation process succeeds when all the principles of sustainable development was met and important criteria of conservation can be identified in the implementation phase.

Phase 5: Appropriate use of a heritage principle is negotiatied, resulting in the development of life-enhancing spaces.


The development of an environmental adventure - tourism strategy and a baseline ethical approach are important. This will influence the way we prapre ourselves to be accountable and to be able to initiate sustainable developmental initiatives. What is important?

"The strategy for sustainable stewardship philosophy, will depend on our ability to be accountable, to be brave and to have a clear vision on what we want to see in the next few years".

Leaving only footprints, is but one part of the coin. Footprints are visible within the "context" of a footpath. I've been hiking the Fishriver Canyon in Namibia in it's full length of about 350km, covering 200km's below Seeheim to Hobas in 6 days. We were following the "spoor" of the animals. There was no evidence of human activity on this part of the canyon. We entered the "normal" Fishriver on day 7 directly below Hobas. I could immediately smell the people and I'm not talking about human waste. I could smell sweat and clothing. Animals will smell us more easily... let alone trying to avois us as a species.

Following the tracks of other researchers, I suggest the following:

  1. Take into account the carrying capacity of the environment you plan to explore.

  2. What will the footprint of the activity be?

  3. Tragedy of the commons, is the next aspect.

  4. The tourism paradox, is important. This outlines some of the key approaches to dealing with environmental and sustainability issues in the tourism industry including sustainable tourism, ecotourism, and responsible tourism management.

What do we suggest? Stewardship in adventure tourism demands the buy in of the clients, the developers and the controlling agents (communities). This is typically done by local governmnets, who use zoning laws to control the development of land within their jurisdiction. When a property is zoned, the local government will determine which uses are allowed on the property, based on the zoning laws and regulations in place (Landuse & Planning: Townplanner, 18 December 2023). That's the easy part of our discussion. When we as industry leaders, want to act as stewards for the adventure and tourism industry, we will not get off the hook with applying zoning and environmental legislation. The table is set for us to educate, be creative and stimulate initiative on how to enhance stewardship in adventure tourism.

  1. Environmental carrying capacity is "the average maximum number of individuals that can occupy a particular habitate without permanently impairing the productive capacity of that habitat" (Rees, 2001:229). This concept has been applied to tourism in the context of a tourism carrying capacity, "the mazimum number of visitors which an area can sustain without unacceptable deterioration of the physical environment and without considerably diminishing user satisfaction" (Salerno et al, 2013: 116).

  2. Ecological footprint is essentially a tool to analyse the impact of a population on Earth (Rees, 2001). The model calculates the total area of land and water resources used to support the population, presenting it in a manner that can be easily related to - usually in terms of the amount of land needed to support an individual at the standard of living that person is used to. Many countries and people of those countries use more natural resources within and beyond their own borders than ecosystems can regenerate (biocapacity). Because of this, these countries and people are essentially running an “ecological deficit.” Nations and people can run these ecological deficits by overusing their own (and other Nations’/peoples’) resources, such as by overfishing, taking resources from other areas, and/or emitting higher levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than can be absorbed (Global Footprint Network, 2020). 

  3. Tragedy of the commons is an economic theory first proposed by Garrett Hardin in 1968, which states that if individuals are given the chance to overuse a common property, they will, in order to realise the maximum personal benefits. If every person does this, common property quickly becomes overused and damaged (Hardin, 1968). For example, a group of tourism operators may look at a pristine natural area and see a chance for economic profit, and in the race for development, little or nothing is done to protect the area. If this unchecked development were to continue, the damage to the environment could reach a point where the elements that attracted tourists in the first place are irreversibly damaged, thus resulting in the “tragedy” that Hardin discusses (Hardin, 1968). The tragedy of the commons leads to something known as the tourism paradox, a concept that describes the paradoxical nature of tourism’s relationship with the environment. 

  4. Tourism paradox explains the common theme promoted by many tourism destinations when the location is in some of the most ecologically fragile environments in existence — coastal, mountain, and river environments (Williams & Ponsford, 2008). Tourism requires these areas to be intact to serve as an attraction to visitors. Tourists expect a clean physical environment, appropriate seasonal conditions, and diversity of wildlife. Destinations failing to provide at least some of these elements risk losing their competitive edge in the global market; visitors will steer clear of polluted, barren landscapes with unpredictable or uncomfortable weather. At the same time, the tourism industry is itself causing environmental damage through its own development in pristine areas, consumption of resources, and contribution to climate change. This is the paradox: as an industry, tourism both creates damage and suffers from it. That’s why it’s critical for the industry to be proactive about environmental sustainability in tourism; failing to do so may result in our downfall (Williams & Ponsford, 2009). 


Engelhardt, R.A. 2008: See projects/empowerment-of-theculture- profession/asia-pacific-heritage-awards-for- culture-heritage-conservation/ previous-heritage- awards-2000-2008/2000/award-winners/ cheong-fatt-tze-mansion-malaysia/.

Global Footprint Network, 2020.

Hardin, G & Hered, J:1959. The tragedy of the commons: Science, New Series Vol 162, No 3859, Dec. 19, 1968.

Land use in Southern Africa; 18 December 2023. Land use & Planning.

Rees,W.E. 2001: Ecological footprints and appropriated carrying capacity: What urban economists leaves out. Sage Journals, International Institute for Environment and Development; Vol 4, Issue 2.

Salerno, Viviano, Manfredi, Caroli, Thankuri, & Tartari, 2013: Spatial variation of nutrient concentrations in the Dudhkoshi River Basin, Sagamartha National park, Nepal. Scientific Research, Vol 12 No 7.

Williams, P.W & Ponsford, I.F: 2009. Confronting tourism’s environmental paradox: Transitioning for sustainable tourism; Science Direct, Vol 41, Issue 6, August 2009. 

About the Author:

Childhood days were spent in the veld on the tracks of a Jackal or following the sound of Guinea Fowl. I’ve followed the academic route into becoming an adventure guide & life coach in the years where there were no formal qualification for adventure leaders in South Africa. The first training was during my studies in Sport & Recreation management in 1985 with Outward Bound. I’ve worked for Cape Town Municipality as a recreation facilitator, completing a BD Degree and a Mphill Coaching at the USB. I’ve presented more than 15 adventure races right through South Africa, lead more than 50 expeditions in the Knysna Forest, hiked the Fish River Canyon more than 20 times and spend more than 10 years with the NSRi as volunteer. This is outside my responsibility as senior pastor of a congregation of 2000 people. For the past 12 years the iALA Educate Gapyear program was my fulltime responsibility. At present time I’m a newly qualified MTB Guide and FireArm Instructor combining the worlds of adventure with young adults in their journey to discover their own potential. The best books I’ve read the past years? “Goliath must Fall” from Louie Giglio and “Changing a leopards spots” from Alex van den Heever & Renias Mhlongo.

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