In 2016 the international tourism sector generated US$7.6 trillion, roughly a tenth of global GDP. One out of every ten jobs created that year was in the tourism sector, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. Roughly a quarter of that comes from sustainable ecotourism.
In South Africa, tourism contributed R127.9 billion to the economy, about 3 percent of GDP. This is predicted to reach nearly 4 percent by 2027, though that seems low if you consider the abundance of attractive natural destinations in the country. If you ask Lawrence Polkinghorne, CEO of the MTO Group, it could be greater.
“We haven’t yet tapped the international markets. We have so much to offer, such incredible diversity. For the outdoor enthusiasts, our offering is endless, from sitting on the cliff’s edge in the Tsitsikamma watching dolphins play to some of the best mountain bike trails the world has to offer. We can cater for anyone, whether hiking, riding, walking or biking, birding or just chilling in the most exquisite surroundings, we are so privileged to be able to share the abundant beauty.”
Polkinghorne becomes very animated when this topic surfaces. MTO is a major presence in the forestry world and custodian of some of South Africa’s great natural wonders.
Contrary to popular belief, modern forestry companies work to sustain the natural environments around their plantations, if only to maintain the conditions under which their tree crops grow well. Yet not many are actively pursuing ecotourism as viable avenues for business and social development.
This changed at MTO when Polkinghorne took the reins in 2014 and set about to modernise the company:
“Change is something we’re excited by. We’ve made a strategic decision to transform ourselves, we want everyone to know about MTO, whether it is for forestry products, community engagements, ecotourism, training or any exceptional experience for that matter, it’s what we do. Look out for the My MTO app we are launching in July, this will showcase what we have to offer.”
Ecotourism is good for business
MTO's custodianship involves vast areas of natural beauty, including the famous Tsitsikamma mountain trail, the world-class Jonkershoek biking trails, as well as new routes in the White River area in Mpumalanga. In many of these areas, local enthusiasts and nature lovers were already trying to maintain and promote the areas. Under Polkinghorne’s watch, MTO has gone from a passive permitter to an active contributor around these activities:
“We share some of the most beautiful places in the country. It’s a strategic imperative for us and we see ecotourism as a very exciting opportunity, one we won’t let slide by the wayside. It is a profit centre for us and we are focused on growing the division, as well as growing the offering we have way beyond just association to include hospitality second to none.”
MTO’s ecotourism ambitions are not about philanthropy, though the company is also funding wildlife research such as around the endangered Ghost Frog found on its grounds and restoring wetlands. It sees ecotourism as a serious sector for South Africa that is worth investing in.
This will help MTO’s bottom line, as well as Polkinghorne’s strong views on development. The country’s future lies in emancipating its people with skills and confidence, something MTO has been investing in through its development programmes and contractor incubator. Likewise, ecotourism is a sector that can immensely benefit local communities. Their involvement as well as seeing the benefit of sustaining natural wonders are crucial.
“For us, ecotourism is parallel to enterprise development. The opportunities are squarely in the hands of communities. SA has a large number of people coming through ecotourism, so we’re encouraged to look at local and support local. We spend a lot of time on stakeholder development frameworks and we encourage people to get involved with communities. The opportunity is all of ours - it belongs to all of us, everyone in the country.”
At present MTO trains over 13,500 people annually across its various sectors, a process it aims to expand considerably. Ecotourism, which it wants to grow into a mass contributor to the company, will play a major role. Other areas of investment include the refurbishment of accommodation and signage at several of its sites, as well as funding the development of new hiking and MTB trails. Looking ahead, MTO is investigating full tour and travel packages, tailored to offer visitors unbelievable and unique exceptional experiences.
“We’re building out what we have,” said Polkinghorne. “Building out and standardising the offering at a world-class level at all of our facilities. That’s a big undertaking, but we’re so encouraged by the uptake and buy-in from both local communities and visitors, we can’t imagine any other way forward. I certainly don’t, not with so much to offer to the world.”