Fair Trade Tourism as an approach to support and build tourism resiliency and sustainability in South Africa 

The contemporary context in which tourism operates is rife with challenges. One specific challenge which has occupied my curiosity over the last 10 years has been the social pillar of sustainability. The broad goals of my research program have been to examine how tourism may be a catalyst to enhance the well-being and quality of life of those involved in, or affected by the sector. My scholarship initially began by exploring alternative (to mass/mainstream) forms of tourism. My intention in my scholarly pursuits has always been to explore the potential of tourism as a social-cultural force as initially discussed by Higgins-Desbiolles (2006). My graduate research examined the emergence of a certification called Fair Trade Tourism in South Africa (FTTSA) and its felt impacts on communities supporting ethical consumption and production. FTTSA was an important certification (and pathway for my research trajectory as I will explain), as the intention was to create benefits (e.g., fair wages, fair working conditions, fair distribution of benefits etc.). Furthermore, the FTTSA certification clearly provided supports for communities who were adversely affected by the segregation laws during the apartheid (1948-1994) and fostered a sustainable and resilient tourism industry.

At the time, there was limited research on fair trade in tourism (see Kalisch 2013; 2010; 2001 as exceptions). As such my research started off as descriptive a.) situating FTTSA certification as different to mainstream tourism approaches (Boluk 2011a; Weeden & Boluk, 2014), the importance of the certification in the context of building a post-apartheid South Africa (Boluk, 2013a; 2013b; 2013c; 2013d), the role of tourism in lifting communities, specifically rural communities out of poverty (Boluk, 2011b; 2011d), the motivations of business owners adopting the certification (Boluk, 2011c), and consumers’ decision-making regarding choosing FTTSA among other tourism products (Boluk, 2011d). Notably, my research determined that South African Fair Trade business owners and managers were effective in the reduction of poverty within their rural communities (Boluk, 2011b). This finding responded to my research goal regarding examining ways tourism may enhance well-being. My time thinking and writing about FTTSA led me to draw attention to ethical consumption as the theoretical framework for a book I co-edited entitled Managing Ethical Consumption in Tourism published by Routledge (Weeden & Boluk, 2014). This book was an outcome of an invitation to organize a session at the American Association of Geographers (AAG) Conference in New York in 2012.

Recognizing the Important Role of Tourism Social Entrepreneurs in Mobilizing Social Outcomes, Progressing Sustainability Interests and Supporting Rural Destination Development

Following my data collection in South Africa, I returned to the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand to complete my doctorate. While analysing my data, using Critical Discourse Analysis, I became aware of the important role of the entrepreneurs I had interviewed. Specifically, my analysis revealed their roles in facilitating improved development outcomes via tourism, by fostering democracy, enhancing community outcomes, and contributing to positive transformations post-apartheid (Boluk 2011a; 2011c). Notably, upon a deeper analysis of my data I began to recognize their work as important responses considering government deficiencies and market gaps (Boluk, 2011c; 2011b; Boluk & Aquino, 2021). This understanding led me to recognize my informants as social entrepreneurs which was a significant gap in the tourism literature. Some of the social contributions recognized in my work drew attention to business owners who created employment opportunities and shared benefits with their communities (Boluk, 2011b; Boluk & Mottiar, 2014).

We endeavoured to better understand the motivations of tourism social entrepreneurs. We learned lifestyle motives, acknowledgement, and generating profit, were also centred, leading us to believe perhaps their motivations were murkier than we originally thought (Boluk & Mottiar, 2014); since the literature has typically identified social entrepreneurs as characteristically superior in contrast to conventional entrepreneurs. While recognizing the various ways tourism social entrepreneurs are referred to for example, community leaders, ambassadors, or volunteers (Boluk & Mottiar, 2014) we noted that characterizing such individuals as tourism social entrepreneurs in the literature would better allow us to advance our thinking on these individuals and specifically understand how they contribute to social value creation (Mottiar & Boluk, 2017).

Moving beyond motivational explorations, my research took a more critical turn recognizing the important work of tourism social entrepreneurs in their contributions to sustainability progress and outcomes. Recognizing the situational context of the social entrepreneurs I interviewed in South Africa, specifically responding to inefficiencies on behalf of the local government, I began to realize the power of their efforts in challenging capitalism (Boluk, 2011b) which was largely unattended to in the scholarship. I moved on, with my colleague Ziene Mottiar, to better understand how social entrepreneurs fit into the tourism discourse. Specifically, with this work we were interested in examining how social entrepreneurs were not only relevant for scholars interested in entrepreneurship, but mutually of interest to those spending time thinking about issues on destination development, relationships between stakeholders, tourism policy, and sustainability (Mottiar & Boluk, 2017).

Another important avenue of exploration was using positive theory as a theoretical framework in an exploration with Carol Kline and a member of her team. Our analysis drew attention to the importance of value creation for tourism social entrepreneurs, beyond revenue generation supporting sustainability. Specifically, we found tourism social entrepreneurs leveraged their networks which they identified as a key strategy. Examining the process of social entrepreneurship, we analysed how food social entrepreneurs in North Carolina created value in their communities. We learned they created value by providing a voice for farmers involved, providing healthy alternatives, fostering education, minimizing environmental impacts; thereby supporting sustainability efforts, and striving to foster community (Kline, Boluk & Shah, 2017). This work made a valuable contribution to the limited literature on food tourism social entrepreneurship.

Recognizing the mutual interests of these two scholarly teams, we amalgamated and designed a cross-case analysis of our data sets in South Africa, Ireland, and North Carolina. Upon engaging in a reanalysis of our data sets side by side, we emphasized the important roles of tourism social entrepreneurs in rural destination development (Mottiar, Boluk & Kline, 2018). Our cross-case analysis revealed three specific roles of tourism social entrepreneurs specifically in rural areas namely as opportunists, catalysts, and network architects. This theoretical framework offered a way to examine the tourism social entrepreneur (Mottiar et al., 2018). Recognizing the important work of tourism social enterprises and the individuals driving them, a team of us offered an enhanced, mutually beneficial, responsible, and more relevant definition of tourism. Confronting the traditional definitions and approaches to tourism solely centring the tourist, their desires and the economic revenue derived from their actions, our work re-centred our attention on the host communities (Higgins-Desbiolles, Carnicelli, Krolikowski, Wijesinghe & Boluk, 2019). In our explanation of how this way of tourism may be mobilized, we explain it is incumbent upon governments to authorize and prioritize social enterprises in destinations, to ensure benefits are retained locally.

Recognizing the gaps in the tourism social entrepreneurship scholarly literature

Following an invitation to contribute to the Elgar Handbook of Tourism Impacts edited by Stoffelen & Ioannides (2021) I engaged in a deeper analysis of the state of the tourism social entrepreneurship literature. Along with my colleague Richard Aquino, we determined while the concept of tourism social entrepreneurship is gaining attention, an examination of the specific impacts of this stakeholder is rather limited. Accordingly, the aim of our analysis was to examine the impacts of tourism social entrepreneurs and their enterprises guided by Gartner’s (1985) framework describing venture creation, comprising the individual, organization, process, and environment. Our examination revealed the two aspects of Gartner’s (1985) framework receiving the most attention were the individual and organization, and the process and environment have received the least attention in the literature. We recognized tourism social entrepreneur’s efforts in promoting community empowerment, sustainable livelihood development through the reduction of poverty, promotion of sustainability and many of the UN SDGs (although not explicit in the literature), healthy lifestyles and healthy communities, promotion of peace and social justice, cultural heritage preservation, inclusivity through women empowerment (although limited) and engaging youth and senior citizens (again limited), ethical consumption in tourism, and equitable tourism supply chains  (Boluk & Aquino, 2021).

Our analysis specifically noted the limited scholarly research exploring diversity and we noted the absence of women tourism social entrepreneurs (Boluk & Aquino, 2021). This is important because we reviewed the lessons learned from the absence of women in the traditional entrepreneurship literature, which reinforces masculine understandings of success-solely emphasising profit (see Cole, 2018; Kimbu, de Jong, Adam, Afenyo, Adeola, Figueroa & Ribeiro, 2021). To avoid history repeating itself, we underscored the importance for future research to uncover the specific impacts of women tourism social entrepreneurs. Building on Higgins-Desbiolles and Monga’s (2020) analysis on women tourism social entrepreneurs we encouraged others to use a feminist ethics of care lens to uncover women’s agency and impacts on their communities. We also noted few studies attending to indigenous tourism social entrepreneurship despite Koh and Hatten’s (2002) work suggesting an increase in the supply of indigenous tourism entrepreneurs particularly in an educational capacity to support sustainability nearly two decades ago. Furthermore, diverse sexual orientations and perspectives from the LGBTQIA+ community regarding their role as tourism social entrepreneurs or leading tourism social enterprises was absent in our review of the literature (Boluk & Aquino, 2021). We concluded our contribution by noting the contemporary crises we are confronted with necessitates attending to local, gendered, and indigenous perspectives in tourism. Doing so, will allow us to better understand their unique and valuable perspectives in designing and implementing social enterprises supporting sustainability (Boluk & Aquino, 2021).

Critical reflections on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals  

Building on my general sustainability interests, scholarship in the area of transformative education and critical pedagogy (see for example Boluk & Carnicelli, 2019; Boluk, Cavaliere & Duffy, 2019; Carnicelli & Boluk, 2017; 2021) and curiosity regarding the role of tourism in making positive impacts, I engaged in a critical analysis of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with my colleagues Christina Cavaliere and Freya Higgins-Desbiolles (Boluk, Cavaliere & Higgins-Desbiolles, 2019). Our initial call for papers and Special Issue (SI) published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, served as the inaugural SI focused on the SDGs in tourism (Boluk Cavaliere & Higgins-Desbiolles, 2017; 2019). This was important because the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) declared 2017 as the International Year of Tourism signalling the opportunities for tourism to drive change and mobilize the SDGs. Furthermore, it was previously indicated that the SDGs had received limited attention in the scholarly literature (Bramwell, Higham, Lane & Miller, 2017).

The 14 papers presented in our SI considered through a critical lens how the SDGs may be understood and realized from multiple worldviews and disciplinary perspectives. We argued the academy must work more critically to reflect the realities of global communities, as related to, and impacted by, sustainable tourism development. Our SI fostered the next phase of sustainable tourism scholarship pursuing the interconnections of the UN SDGs to tourism theory and praxis, activating critical thinking to analyse and critique the SDGs, and advance sustainability in tourism systems. My main contributions with my fellow guest editors included the presentation of a six-theme conceptual framework in consideration of both reformist and radical pathways to support sustainable transitions in tourism. The six themes we proposed for interrogating transformed futures in tourism include: critical tourism scholarship, gender in the sustainable development agenda, engaging with Indigenous perspectives and other paradigms, degrowth and the circular economy, governance and planning and ethical consumption (Boluk, Cavaliere & Higgins-Desbiolles, 2019).

Considering the role of tourism social entrepreneurs in progressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Recognizing the emphasis of tourism social entrepreneurs in predominantly southern geographic contexts in the literature, their role in leading change, and as a way to advance my efforts in the area of tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals, I was awarded and I am currently leading a Tri-Council peer-reviewed SSHRC Insight Development Grant. The funded project is exploring the role of tourism social entrepreneurs with a specific interest in the role of women and indigenous tourism social entrepreneurs. The context is focused on two tourism counties in Southern Ontario, Canada. The intention is to understand tourism social entrepreneurs’ responses to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and recognize any specific barriers (pandemic related or otherwise) entrepreneurs may face in implementing sustainability activities. Canada is an important context given the limited attention paid to the nation’s sustainability efforts. I expect that the findings will generate new theory on the role of tourism social entrepreneurs in driving the SDGs.


I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with some incredible humans over the trajectory of my career. I would consider many of my collaborator’s dear friends and invaluable supporters, empowering and pushing my thinking. I will also highlight some of the financial support I received, as a graduate student at Otago University, New Zealand, Post-doctoral student at Dalarna University, Sweden, and the support received from the Social Sciences, Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) our federal research funding agency in Canada, which have made and continues to make it possible to contribute to the scholarly research discussed in this chapter.


Written by Karla Boluk, University of Waterloo, Canada
Read Karla’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers


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Women’s voices in tourism research Copyright © 2021 by The University of Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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