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Exploring the gendered impacts of ecotourism development in Mabibi, northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

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In South Africa (SA), and many other countries, tourism is seen as an important industry, if not a panacea, for addressing socio-economic regeneration in poor communities, increasing economic activity, and improving local livelihoods (Huijbens et al., 2014, Brouder, 2013 and Das & Chatterjee, 2015). However, tourism is often not well harnessed as an economic opportunity, as many local communities within tourism destinations remain left out from participating in the industry and, as a result, do not benefit directly from its significant growth. Many of South Africa’s ecotourism destinations are inextricably linked to a host of diverse socio-economic and conservation issues and, for the most part, local people do not have access to resources and are left out from the planning and decision-making process (Das & Chatterjee, 2015). Where this occurs, it has had gendered implications, as women are affected greatly due to the inequality in the divisions of labour. There are also broader dynamics in the tourism context, where gendered societies shape gendered tourism practices (Whitehouse, 2006). The study aims to understand the impact of ecotourism on household livelihoods and issues faced by women in Mabibi, Northern KwaZulu-Natal. Mabibi falls within the UMkhanyakude district municipality which is the poorest in the province of KZN, faced with high numbers of unemployment and poverty, and lies within the government proclaimed protected area and world heritage site, the Isimangaliso Wetland Park (IWP). The study adds to an understanding of the socio-economic ecotourism impacts of tourism on local livelihoods in the area, with an added emphasis on how the local people perceive the costs and benefits related to living within the Isimangaliso Wetland Park. The main objectives were to assess: state-society relations that provide context for tourism in the area; the distribution of costs and benefits concerning tourism development; and finally the impact of gender relations on this distribution in Mabibi. To understand the gendered impacts of ecotourism, feminist political ecology theory and a gendered analysis approach were used to understand the relationship tourism has to social, economic, political, and environmental issues in the study area, particularly concerning inequality and patriarchy. Data for this study were collected using a qualitative research method that provided a critical and in-depth analysis of the issues and challenges facing women and the community of Mabibi. The study findings indicate minimal ecotourism opportunities for the community of Mabibi, especially women. Findings suggest that a minority in the community is employed, benefits are unevenly distributed in the park, and ownership of tourism-related enterprises by local people was almost non-existent. Meaningful linkages between the ecotourism industry and the local community are limited to communities’ ownership of shares in the two tourism establishments in the vicinity, and the supply of formal and informal job opportunities. Furthermore, findings reveal that access to local resources and development opportunities are restricted, which has meant that conservation costs have had significant negative impacts on local people as the community depends largely on natural resources. Subsequently, for women, this has had a great impact because of the existing divisions of labour, roles, and household tasks. The study offers new insights into the changing relationships between communities, ecotourism, and conservation by highlighting the dynamics that result from socio-economic relations in ecotourism. The study findings indicate a need for active community engagement and enhanced opportunities for the local people and women of Mabibi.


Masters Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg