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SMS: The sustainable communications channel

According to the World Tourism Organisation, sustainable tourism can be defined as "Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environment impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities." When it comes to communicating with the visitors, or with regards to the needs of the environment or the communities, SMS has proven yet again that it is a capable and efficient medium to get the right message to the right people at the right time.

But how can something like SMS aid in addressing, or disseminating the needs of the local communities and their environment to the tourists? We outline three key ways in which SMS can and is being used in Southern Africa to promote, educate and engage with locals and tourists around sustainable tourism:

1. SMS to engage

* Local tourism authorities or businesses can communicate with host communities to understand their needs, concerns and aspirations, giving the host communities the opportunity to have a say in what, or how, they can contribute to the sustainable and long-term attraction of tourists.* SMS messages can be sent to past and present guests who have offered to add value to the destination through donations, actively marketing their sustainable operations (i.e. the use of solar panels) and either requesting further donations, or informing the donors on the progress made on each project.

2. SMS to promote local communities and their initiatives

* Once a holiday booking has been made, SMS messages sent to the travellers can include information on the local communities they are visiting; local foods to try and local places to visit. These messages can encourage the tourists to step away from the more commercialised attractions and instead take the time to appreciate the local culture and environment. These SMS messages can also include the do's and don'ts of visiting the community, for example, "leave only footprints, take only pictures".* Visitors could be sent SMS messages detailing "voluntourism" opportunities, giving the time and place for any events aimed at helping the community or environment. For example, should they wish to take part in local beach clean-ups or hikes into a nearby forest to get rid of alien plants.

3. SMS to educate

* SMS messages can be sent to visiting tourists informing them of any endangered species or areas. For example, where fauna and flora rehabilitation is in progress. These messages could encourage tourists to stay away from those areas for the duration of the project.* SMS can be used to monitor any threats from animals in a popular tourist hotspot. For example, Shark Spotters, a unique beach safety and shark conservation programme monitoring several beaches along the Western Cape coastline in South Africa, uses SMS to notify relevant team members when there has been a shark sighting in the area, they will then sound an alarm which will inform swimmers in the water that there has been a shark sighting, prompting them to quickly exit the ocean. In the case of any physical shark attack, these SMS alerts will notify the relevant authorities, such as ambulance services etc.* SMS can be used to communicate with local volunteers in greening initiatives. For example, GreenPop uses SMS to communicate directly and efficiently with the beneficiaries of previous tree-planting excursions, reminding them of plant care methods.* Rich media messages (Mobi-grams) can be sent to tourists linking to information packs, maps or advice on how to reduce their footprint while visiting. For example, if visiting Cape Town during a severe water shortage, being made aware of this shortage and the ways in which they can minimise their water usage during their visit. Other examples include using electricity wisely; disposing of their trash appropriately and avoiding the purchasing of foods or other items that are scarce in that area.* SMS messages can also be used internally within the local communities. For example, reminding locals to recycle, along with where they can drop off local goods to be recycled. Perhaps there is a local artist who is using these recycled goods in artwork, SMS can be used to encourage the drop off of useable items to a predetermined drop off point.* SMS messages can be sent to staff of the hotel, or a popular tourist attraction, reminding them of the sustainable initiatives being undertaken, or any programmes that the attraction or hotel supports. For example, paper free ticketing, or encouraging bicycle tours instead of bus or taxi runs.* SMS messages can be used in local programmes, detailing sustainable fishing or farming methods, or even recommending prices at which locals can sell their goods or services for (fresh produce or handmade items).

For any tourist or tourism related company, SMS can be used to drive engagements, promote sustainability through education and ensure that visitors have a greater understanding of the area and environments in which they are spending their precious holiday time. The goal, be creative. Use SMS to tell a story, to guide the visitors on their journey of your region, the region they are visiting. Knowing that when they visit a destination, they are doing their bit to promote sustainable tourism means that they return home not only rested, but proud of their experiences and the aid that they have given to the local communities.