Avitourism taking flight in the Garden Route and Klein Karoo

Dec 21, 2023 | General News

by Roland Vorwerk

The Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve (GCBR) has partnered in an exciting initiative to develop and market avitourism in the Garden Route and Klein Karoo. BirdLife South Africa (BLSA) is implementing this Avitourism Project with stakeholders across the Garden Route and Klein Karoo from September 2023 till March 2024. The project is funded by the Western Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism through their recently launched Growth for Jobs (G4J) Tourism Challenge Fund. Additional co-funding from the GCBR has ensured that the project is effectively implemented in key sites across the GCBR and Garden Route Biosphere Reserve regions. 

World-renowned eco-tourism destination

The Garden Route and Klein Karoo (GR&KK) is a world-renowned ecotourism destination with a diversity of habitats ranging from forest to fynbos and from marine to montane. This range of habitats hosts more than 450 species of birds – over half of South Africa’s bird species. Incredibly, just under 50 of the country’s 69 endemic and near-endemic bird species, which occur nowhere else in the world!

The Avitourism Project aims to effectively develop and market these enviable birding tourism assets and to establish the GR&KK as a premier birding destination to unlock additional tourism income and employment opportunities from this niche market. Avitourism (also known as birding tourism) is a specialized field of ecotourism focused explicitly on observing birds in their natural environment. This type of tourism is part of broader, well established, nature-based tourism sector.  

Avitourism within this region, especially within the GCBR, is a relatively untapped market which has the potential to attract both domestic and foreign avitourists. In general, avitourism has positive environmental and conservation impacts; furthermore, the avitourist preference for birding in small groups lends itself particularly well to the use of small tour operators and community guides. BLSA has established very effective communication platforms to engage with the avitourism niche market. Their official Facebook page has 32,000 followers and their public Facebook group had 96,000 members at the end of 2023. African Birdlife is a special-interest consumer bi-monthly magazine that is published by BLSA. It has a guaranteed print order of 10,000 copies and is delivered to all BLSA subscriber members and is also circulated to luxury lodge partners for extended distribution. The magazine regularly profiles interesting and little-known birding destinations. In 2021 BLSA launched a one-stop-shop for avitourism in South Africa with its GoBirding website.

A unique feature of the site is a navigable map which provides information about birding sites, BLSA Birder Recommended Accommodation, community bird guides, tour operators and bird clubs affiliated to BLSA.

Avitourism workshops across the local municipalities

The Avitourism Project kicked off with a series of inception workshops across the 7 local municipalities making up the Garden Route District Municipality. Invitations to tourism and conservation stakeholders were sent out through local tourism offices and conservation organisations. 164 participants attending the workshops in Wilderness, Mossel Bay, Riversdale, Ladismith, Oudtshoorn, Plettenberg Bay and Knysna. One virtual workshop was also held, to ensure that those who were not able to make the in-person workshops, also had the opportunity to get an overview of the proposed activities of the project.

At the start of the project, only 29 birding sites within the GR&KK were profiled on the GoBirding platform, with a mere 8 of these falling within the GCBR domain. Through several stakeholder consultations, additional sites were identified and work to write up and publish more sites commenced. It is envisaged that 70 birding sites will be profiled on the GoBirding platform by March 2024, with more than 30 of these being located within the GCBR domain ensuring that this site better reflects the birding opportunities within this region.

Local stakeholders were invited to sign up for 43 Avitourism Educationals that were successfully held across the Garden Route & Klein Karoo in November 2023. These were aimed at giving participants an introduction to a guided birding experience, and to raise awareness of a wide range of birding sites across the destination. Of these, 18 were located within the GCBR domain. The geographic spread of these Educationals ranged from Witsand to Riversdale, the Robinson Pass and the Klein and Groot Brak rivers, as well as a number of sites across the Klein Karoo from Ladismith and Van Wyksdorp to the Swartberg, Meiringspoort and Uniondale. More than 400 participants, including tourism and conservation stakeholders as well as members of the public who heard about the project, enjoyed these birding experiences. A series of 10 virtual Avitourism training sessions were hosted by knowledgeable and experienced Avitourism experts in November 2023, these trainings are available to the public on the BLSA YouTube channel.

Topics ranged from an introduction to avitourism and bird identification; birding terminology and equipment, common birds in the various biomes of the Garden Route & Klein Karoo and how to guide birders. More than 180 people registered to attend these. A certificate of attendance is issued to everyone who completed at least 5 quizzes that were made available after each virtual training session, and these participants also qualify for on-site training by experienced bird guides in various sites across the Garden Route and Klein Karoo in February 2024. To raise awareness about the Avitourism Project and the avitourism experience of the Garden Route & Klein Karoo, a number of double page features will be profiled in BLSA’s African Birdlife magazine. The first feature was titled ‘Karoo to coast birding bonanza – why the Garden Route and Klein Karoo should be on your bucket list’. The second feature was titled ‘The Little Karoo has a LOT to offer’ and was accompanied by three pictures of near-endemic bird species – all of them having Karoo included in their names – the Karoo Eremomela, Karoo Lark and Karoo Chat.

A pathway to new opportunities

The initial activities undertaken by the Avitourism Project have created opportunities for interested stakeholders to learn more about this niche market, and the avitourism experience itself. There are exciting opportunities to develop and market avitourism within both the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve and Garden Route Biosphere Reserve and a number of stakeholders are now working together to build on the foundations that have been laid by this project.

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