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The V&A Waterfront. PIcture: SUPPLIED
The V&A Waterfront. PIcture: SUPPLIED

Covid-19 gave the lexicon a new word to describe the global reduction in human activity — especially travel — during the pandemic. “Anthropause” was the term scientists coined when they pointed out the lockdown’s positive impact on the environment as carbon emissions fell and air quality improved. 

One of the pandemic’s legacies is our improved understanding of how sustainable practices and reduced travel can help to tackle the climate emergency, even if this knowledge hasn’t been universally embraced: incredibly, even as a wildfire on the Greek island of Rhodes forced tourist evacuations in July, new visitors were flying in after refusing to abandon their holiday plans. 

Responsible travel is a human right though, as the World Travel & Tourism Council has made clear. Physical human connection is essential for greater cultural awareness and understanding, and it’s needed more than before in a world seemingly intent upon a more inward-looking nationalistic approach and less international collaboration.

The travel and tourism industry is an essential part of many economies and will be increasingly important as traditional employment is disrupted by the digital and artificial intelligence revolutions. But there is a worldwide resolve in the industry to build back better. It is exemplified in the thinking behind this year’s World Tourism Day on September 27, which emphasises “the opportunity to redefine and recalibrate the direction and narratives of tourism investments”. 

The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) wants this metamorphosis to focus on three areas — education and skills; sustainable infrastructure and accelerated green transformation; and innovation, technology and entrepreneurship — and with tourism employing 10% of the global workforce, it is easy to see how important the campaign could be. 

Petri dish

In SA it’s impossible to overstate the importance of aligning ourselves with the new zeitgeist. Tourism is one of our key economic sectors, and the one with the most potential for economic growth and extra employment. So we cannot afford to ignore the consequences — good or bad — of how we go about our business. 

As the most-visited destination in Africa and a property responsible for almost 2% of the Western Cape economy, the V&A Waterfront has always taken its social and environmental responsibilities seriously. Due to its innovative approach it can even be regarded as a Petri dish for the global tourism reset the UN wants to see. 

Encouragingly, the V&A has evidence that the new thinking works, not only in helping the environment but in growing business. For the year ended June 30, the 123ha property reported a wide range of positive postanthropause metrics, including hotel occupancies up 56% (now above prepandemic levels) and retail sales up 39% as domestic and international tourists returned.

Many of the beneficiaries of the revival are the 450 small enterprises that make up more than half of the V&A’s tenant mix, a characteristic that scores highly among the growing number of tourists keen to support destinations committed to sustainable investment. 

The V&A has adopted a strategy to reconceive products and services with a sustainable approach, to meet societal needs and to address unserved opportunities. This inevitably creates an ecosystem that develops small businesses, and in the last year small, medium and micro enterprises that trade at the V&A grew by 16% in food, 35% in craft and design and 16% in retail.   

Halved emissions

In fact, the V&A has always seen its role as being an incubator where small businesses can start up, commercialise their products and mature, and with about 25-million visitors annually, it has the footfall to support them. The precinct’s markets have been a particularly powerful launch pad for scores of Cape Town entrepreneurs. 

Similarly, the V&A’s green journey started in 2008, and thanks to extensive interventions the property has since halved its carbon emissions despite considerable further development. In common with many other businesses, load-shedding has been a setback for the V&A, and all too often its 48 diesel-burning generators are called into service to ensure tenants’ businesses operate without interruption.

A significant installation of solar panels has reduced reliance on the generators however, and there is much more renewable energy to come.

The V&A’s consumption of municipal water has also fallen due partly to a plant that converts more than 17,000 litres of black water a day to irrigation standard, and that offers a solution to the pressures sewerage systems face as urban populations grow. The use of seawater to cool buildings in the Silo District also reduces the need for potable water and the energy devoured by air-conditioning systems.

Consumption of City of Cape Town water has fallen by 61%, and that figure will soon reach 100% with the commissioning of a desalination plant that can produce 5-million litres of potable water daily; and while the desalination process uses electricity, a planned waste-to-energy plant will offset this consumption. 

In these projects and many more, the V&A aims to have an impact beyond its borders. As a privately owned public space where 25,000 people work or live and with up to 180,000 visitors a day, it is a discrete neighbourhood with sufficient scale to act as a test bed and a proving ground for new approaches and technologies that address the challenges of sustainability. 

With the lessons from the desalination plant, for example, Cape Town will be better placed to look to the sea as a resource in preparation for the next drought; and a dedicated recycling centre that recovers half of the V&A’s waste shows how pressure on landfills can be eased. 

The experience and knowledge the V&A has gained on its journey to sustainability are for everyone’s benefit, and we are proud to have been able to take the lead. We are also keen to accelerate climate innovation by sharing them, just as we are eager to keep innovating on our journey to greater sustainability and net zero. 

In doing so, we endorse the UNWTO’s call for the governments, including our own, to develop investment policies and financial mechanisms that enable tourism to deliver on its huge potential to provide opportunities for people and to accelerate climate action. 

 • Green is CEO of the V&A Waterfront.

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