This paper analyzes the opportunities and tensions generated by efforts to use conservation-based tourism as a catalyst for economic development. By exploring how historical legacies position actors and influence relationships between them, characterizing the nature tourism sector and its logic, and examining how liberalizing states are likely to engage with community-based tourism. I situate community-based nature tourism ventures in a broader political economic context. The paper draws from research on the Makuleke Region of Kruger National Park, South Africa to illustrate how these factors influence prospects for community benefit from protected area tourism. Like many other protected areas in Africa, contemporary dynamics in the Makuleke Region are a product of dispossession, forced removal, and conservation. The Makuleke, who consider the land their ancestral home, were forcibly removed in the late 1960s so that the land could be incorporated into Kruger National Park. They regained title in 1998, and have subsequently pursued economic development through conservation. While co-managing the Region with SANParks, the parastatal that manages all national protected areas, the Makuleke have sought to develop a tourism initiative that will produce economic self reliance and development. In adopting this strategy, the Makuleke are engaging with local, national, and international political economies over which community actors have limited room for maneuver.
This case brings three factors to light. First, the legacy of fortress conservation may make it more difficult for community actors to engage with their partners on an equal basis. Second, sectoral attributes of tourism pose special challenges to community based natural resource management initiatives; it is not clear that tourism projects will produce substantial benefits. Third, the coincidence of the shift to community based natural resource management with liberalization and democratization has altered the landscape on which all conservation efforts are situated. The confluence of these factors has created an environment in which state protected areas, community controlled conservation areas, and private game parks are competing for domestic and international tourist revenue. While nature tourism ventures hold substantial economic promise for some communities, tourism is not a panacea. Actors engaged in community based natural resource management initiatives should carefully assess the risks, challenges, and opportunities posed by tourism ventures.