Experiencing our roots: Africa through Virtual Ecotourism, a general overview.

This paper discusses some uses of new technologies for boosting tourism in Africa, with specific attention to ecotourism sector as a branch of sustainable development. This study is descriptive in nature. It aims to offer an overall description of new tourism undercurrents and future challenges.   2017 will be the International Year of Sustainable Tourism.

The UN resolution, adopted on 4 December 2015, recognizes the importance of sustainable tourism as a catalyst «in fostering better understanding among peoples everywhere, in leading to a greater awareness of the rich heritage of various civilizations and in bringing about a better appreciation of the inherent values of different cultures, thereby contributing to the strengthening of peace in the world» 1 .      

Considering the abovementioned UN’s aims and objectives, the use of new digital technologies applied to tourism is an effective way to reduce consumption, promote tourism and empower environmental protection projects. Virtual tourism is a powerful tool that can be employed for supporting Africa market and develop better strategies for a more competitive and sustainable form of tourism. Boosting the virtual tourism in Africa will contribute in creating jobs and growth, by providing access to a broad sphere of information and data on current and rising trends of African tourism, promoting the sector and helping tourists to make more thoughtful choices and to satisfactory plan their holiday.  

Between the numerous subsectors of sustainable tourism, ecotourism is a relatively new and unexplored approach with a great potential for sustainable development. In 1983 the Mexican architect Hector Ceballos-Lascurain was the first to coin the term ecotourism and defined this new touristic phenomenon as a «tourism [that] involves travelling to relatively undisturbed natural areas with the specific object of studying, admiring and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural aspects (both past and present) found in these areas» 2.  

In 1990 a team of experts promoted and founded the International Society of Ecotourism (TIES) with the aim of creating the first non-profit organization dedicated to ecotourism, re-defining it as responsible travel to natural areas that preserves the environment and implements the well-being of the local population.  

The interest in ecotourism reaches its apex in 2002, declared the International Year of Ecotourism by UN. However, it has to be noted that ecotourism risks to become a kind of mass phenomenon. Thus, new technologies may be a valid tool for promoting a responsible tourism and supporting the demands of sustainability.  

When referring to the virtual tourism, it is not, as one might think, a travel  to utopian synthetic places or digital spaces made of pixels and other worlds. More concretely, virtual tourism offers specific itineraries designed for real travelers. Many institutions, associations, museums, archaeological sites and organizations already provide services close to virtual tourism. QR codes, smartphones, tablets and computers guarantee an easy and free access to specific virtual itineraries and offer a potential essay of a specific tourism product (i.e. a visit to a museum, experiencing an excursion, etc.) according to the logic of the try before you buy. But there is also another aspect, perhaps more important than any futuristic vision.  

Virtual reality could indeed have some advantages in relation to the enhancement and the promotion of places often considered dangerous. The current scenario of armored capitals, off-limits territories and security as the new twenty-first century business, makes tourism sector suffering from a paralysis that new technologies could mitigate, with a positive impact from the cultural point of view.  

Of course, in some cases the damage is irreparable. The human and cultural disaster of historic proportions, such as the destruction of the city of Palmyra, the pearl of Syria and a treasure of the whole humanity, is only one of the numerous cases of senseless devastation of world cultural heritage that have occurred recently, such as frequent looting of museums, libraries and archaeological sites. If one considers violence and conflict as common problems, damaging not only humans, but also cultural heritage, it is obvious that a wise use of virtual reality applied to tourism can contribute to spread a pan-cultural approach that recognizes the different expressions of culture as a common good and encourage the appreciation of different values and cultures.  

African tourism industry was particularly affected by war terror threat that inflicted economic and social cultural wounds to the local economy of African nations. With this in mind, virtual tourism is a useful opportunity to face the barbarism and the violence that aim to make inaccessible and marginalize Africa.   Creating a virtual network of African ecotourism will help to put supply and demand in contact and to stimulate users to exchange ideas and tips for greener holidays, supporting an ever larger diffusion of green conscious travelers interested in sharing green travel experiences.    


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