Developing the Garden Route & Klein Karoo as an avitourism destination

Avitourism, also known as birding tourism, stands as one of the most well-established and rapidly expanding tourism niches in South Africa. The country boasts an extraordinary avian diversity, encompassing nearly 900 of the world’s 10,000 bird species. A report from the Department of Trade and Industry in 2010 highlighted that avitourists, distinguished by their passion for birding, tend to embark on longer journeys, spend more generously, and explore rural destinations more extensively than other tourist categories. Furthermore, birders often belong to higher-value demographic segments, emphasizing the significant and potentially lucrative opportunities within this specialized tourism sector.

Birders in Nature's Valley enjoying forest specials.

Nature's Valley guided birding trip

Many tourism, conservation, other stakeholders were introduced to avitourism for the first time.

White-starred Robin

This is one of the most sought-after forest birds, but is very tricky to find! Image credit: Mike Bridgeford

The Garden Route and Klein Karoo, collectively forming the Garden Route District, are renowned for their scenic landscapes and nature-based tourism appeal. Despite this recognition, the avitourism potential of the region has largely gone unnoticed. The district provides unparalleled access to diverse habitats, ranging from lush forests and fynbos to picturesque coastlines and the arid Karoo. Despite constituting only 2% of the country’s landmass, this compact area harbours over half of South Africa’s bird species. Moreover, its strategic accessibility through major travel hubs such as Cape Town, George, and Gqeberha, coupled with a diverse tourism offering, ensures holistic nature-based experiences for visitors. Notably, the district grants easy access to over 40 of South Africa’s endemic and near-endemic bird species, a particular attraction for avid birders.

Recognizing the untapped potential of the area, BirdLife South Africa submitted a proposal to the Growth 4 Jobs Tourism Challenge Fund under the Western Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism. BirdLife South Africa, a conservation NGO dedicated to safeguarding birds and their habitats, serves as the central entity for avitourism in the country through its GoBirding travel website (https://gobirding.co.za). The Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve NPC has provided co-funding for the project to ensure that adequate resources are directed to the particularly underdeveloped avitourism footprint within their domain. In Toto Retreat, an owner-operated Guest House in Sedgefield and a Recommended Accommodation partner of BirdLife South Africa, joined as a local activator and collaborator.

More than 160 stakeholders across the 7 local municipalities that are marketed under the Garden Route and Klein Karoo tourism destination brand attended various inception meetings in September to introduce the Avitourism Project. Currently, 29 birding sites are profiled in the Garden Route and Klein Karoo section of the GoBirding website. At least 20 new sites are in the process of being written up, significantly improving the geographic spread of the sites across the district. Several tourism service providers including accommodation establishments, tour operators and guides are also in the process of signing up to be profiled on the website – to provide a unique one-stop-shop of avitourism-related information and services in the destination.

Plettenberg Bay workshop

The avitourism workshops were attended by over 170 people.

Cape Sugarbird

The Cape Sugarbird is one of the most recognizable fynbos endemics in the Garden Route and Klein Karoo.

The initiative aims to enhance both the supply and demand sides of the avitourism market. Tourism service providers are undergoing upskilling opportunities through awareness campaigns and training to better cater to avitourists’ needs, with market access facilitated through GoBirding. The upskilling opportunities are in the form of 10 one-hour virtual training sessions on a broad range of avitourism topics. These are uploaded to the BirdLife South Africa YouTube channel, to ensure continued access to these training resources beyond the project timeline. A series of 43 Avitourism Educationals are being hosted across the district to give tourism and conservation stakeholders and interested members of the public an opportunity enjoy a guided birding experience. For many it has been their first exposure to such an experience.

To increase awareness of the project and the diverse avitourism experiences in the destination, the project is showcasing the region through multiple features in the specialist interest African Birdlife magazine and alleviating information bottlenecks by adding sites and service providers to GoBirding. Numerous media articles are being generated through active engagement with local media outlets and a hosted media tour with national travel and special interest journalists will be held in February 2024. Finally, a comprehensive report will be generated, incorporating insights and input from stakeholders on the ground, charting a roadmap for future avitourism development to sustain momentum and growth.

Rufous-eared Warbler

This is an example of an LBJ - little brown job - which are difficult to identify but sought-after by both local and international birders.

Scheduled to run until March 2024, the project has garnered support and collaboration from various networks of local stakeholders, including local and district tourism organisations, municipalities, bird clubs, tourist guides, accommodations, and engaged members of the public. Explore the region on https://gobirding.co.za, and witness its transformation as additional sites and services illuminate the landscape like a Christmas tree.

For more information, you can contact Andrew de Blocq on 011 789 1122

Knysna Turaco

This stunning forest bird is emblematic of the Garden Route. Image credit: Mike Buckham.

About the Author: Andrew de Blocq

Andrew de Blocq is the Avitourism Project Manager at BirdLife South Africa. He oversees the various tourism projects, including the Community Bird Guide Project, the South Africa Listers’ Club, our network of BirdLife South Africa Recommended Accommodations, Tour Operators, and Course Providers, as well as the GoBirding platform. Andrew joined BirdLife South Africa in 2018 after completing his Masters at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town. He is a passionate birder, with nearly 750 birds on his South African list.