Avitourism – a lucrative tourism market

Tapping into the economic potential of the birding community

A few months back an article in Tourism Update caught my eye:  Avitourism may have same economic potential as gorillas – Rwanda.  Even though there are over 700 bird species in Rwanda,  surely these little feathered friends can’t hold the same fascination as the huge iconic and threatened gorillas? But it appears the birding tourism market is indeed that powerful. 

Bird Friendly Establishment 

I’ve been a very amateurish birder for many years and Liz at Lancaster is now a Birder Friendly establishment. We’ve also had the privilege of hosting BirdLife guests who work tirelessly for bird conservation in South Africa and the rest of the continent.  So avitourism has been a topic of conversation at the breakfast tables in recent months.

Birders – a significant sector of the travel and tourism market

Significant in terms of numbers

Birdwatching as an activity seems to have flown below the radar (forgive the terrible pun)  The Birdist in a blog of 2013 writes:  

Birders seems to have a bit of an inferiority complex in the world of outdoor recreation.  Some of it I think is social (we lack the macho chest-puffing of hunters), some of it is institutional (we lack the political organization and historical traditions of hunting and fishing).  I used to think that part of it was simply that there are fewer of us.  But, apparently that isn’t true.

I don’t have stats for South African sports players but according to the U.S. census in 2009, 24 million Americans play basketball, 23 million baseball, and 9 million play American football.  And there are estimated to be nearly 60 million American birdwatchers. And whoop-whoop as the Birdist points out: there are 22.5 million people who will travel to see wild-life compared to 13.6 million hunters. 

Significant in terms of spend

This is very outdated but it gives some idea of the value of the birding market (Source: Market Analysis of Bird-Based Tourism)

And birders it seems are bigger spenders than many other tourists, so have a greater impact on local economies. A 2011 national survey by the US Fish and Wildlife Services into Fish and Wild-life Recreation (yes !  my guests and my interests take me in very interesting, diverse and sometimes obscure reading directions), found that hunters spend a total of $33.7 billion per year; anglers ($41.8 billion),  and birders top the  spend at $54.9 billion.   In 1998 a study of avitourism to South Africa estimated that by 1997 between 11,400 and 21,200 birdwatchers spent US 12-26 million annually in the South African economy.

Job Creation 

And an additional plus is that avitourism can be an effective way to create jobs while delivering both conservation and human development needs.  The training of birding guides provides much needed income generation opportunities. Because of many birds’ habitats, these communities are often in non-urban and peripheral areas.   

Wakkerstroom – a birder’s paradise

Wakkerstroom is a small village established in 1859 in what is now Mpumalanga.  Located in 2 biomes:  700 ha wetland (one of the larger reed-marshes in SA) as well extensive high altitude grasslands, there is a very varied habitat for some 350 plus species of birds. It is also the home of a training and development programme in South Africa of local birding guides.  Starting with baby steps in 1994,  by 1997 South Africa’s first local guide course took place in Wakkerstroom, and by 2000 the BirdLife Training Centre in Wakkerstroom was completed.

Lucky Ngwenya Community birding guide, Wakkerstroom

Wakkerstroom’s world famous LBJs 

Some 10 years ago we decided as a family to have a week-end away out of town. None of us had been to Wakkerstroom so we booked a farmhouse on the edge of the dorp and set off. One of my sons is an avid birder … the other .. mmmm ….. not so much.  So it was with a lot of grumpiness that the non-birders trudged round and round 2 different cowpat-ridden fields looking for the Rudd’s Lark in the one field and the Botha’s Lark in the other.  And they were not convinced that they had not been duped into a weekend of “twitching” rather than a “gesellige”  family getaway. 

Rudd’s Lark (or is it the Botha’s?!)  Source: Wikipedia
Botha’s Lark (or is it the Rudd’s?!  (Source: Birdlife SA)

These little grassland LBjs might look quite different in these photos but believe me even at the time I never got a close enough look to say whether I could differentiate or identify either of these 2 rare endemic species now only found in very select places in South Africa .. including 2 specific fields in Wakkerstroom.    

But we had a great week-end despite mutterings of ‘it looks just like a sparrow’! 

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