If you’ve ever wondered whether your travels can make a difference, here's a case study from our recent trip to Madagascar. It shows just how tourism can support conservation, sustainability and community development.
In Madagascar we witnessed an environment under pressure from deforestation, expanding population and poverty. At the same time, we visited lemur-loaded rainforests and parks whose preservation is motivated in good part by the economic potential of tourism — a potential which enables animals and ecosystems to be worth more alive than dead.
Considering that 80-90% of Madagascar's wildlife and plant species cannot be found anywhere else in the world, the island’s 110 species of lemur are only the beginning. In this mega-diverse (a technical term, in fact) country, there are dazzling chameleons, hissing cockroaches, ancient baobab tree species, glowing frogs, and medicinal plants that seem to cure everything.
Yet as we celebrate that beauty and diversity and the incredible travel experiences one can have there, we must also give ink to Madagascar’s challenges and struggles.
Those challenges offer context as to why travel and tourism, when done right, can have such a positive impact.
Madagascar's Challenges…and a Look to Sustainable Tourism and Conservation
Depending upon the criteria one uses, Madagascar stands between the 5th and 10th poorest country in the world. Access to clean water and adequate nutrition is a challenge for much of the population. Deforestation, slash-and-burn agriculture and desertification remain huge problems.
Habitat depletion is a threat to lemurs, the most endangered primates in the world, and to other endemic wildlife and plant species. In the not-so-long term, these environmental problems also post an existential threat to the people living there.
Our aim is not to be negative here, but instead offer a realistic view and context. This is perhaps best summarized by: “Madagascar is a rich country [in terms of natural resources], but it is filled with poor people.”
We heard this sentiment echoed by several Malagasy people we encountered on our journey.
It would be naive to think that sustainable tourism can solve all the environmental, economic, educational and social problems in Madagascar. There are broader, interconnected issues across societal and economic dimensions.
However, during our G Adventures tour in Madagascar we visited innovative community-driven conservation projects and organizations registering a positive impact on the local level. They did so not only in terms of conservation, reforestation and increasing animal populations, but also in providing income generation opportunities and investment in education and health initiatives.
Money from tourism — travelers taking tours that choose these experiences and organizations — makes this happen and helps keeps these organizations sustainable.
Micro to macro. Local to regional. Regional to national.
According to the Lemur Conservation Network:
Many conservationists agree that ecotourism is the number one thing that can ensure the survival of lemurs in Madagascar. The local Malagasy people need to see that lemurs are more valuable alive than dead. Tourists will come to see lemurs in the wild.
When travelers align their travel and purchasing decisions with their values — choosing tours, activities, itineraries, and experiences that support animal conservation and community development — positive change can happen.
Here are a few ways travelers can do that in Madagascar.
How Tourism in Madagascar Can Support Conservation and Communities
Book a Walk at a Community Park
Our experience around the world tells us that conservation efforts which don’t engage local communities and actively ignore local economic realities do not work in the long run.
That’s where the model of the community parks in Madagascar aims to operate a little differently, combining the goals of sustainable conservation with the local interest of community development.
Recommended Community Parks in Madagascar
Here are some of the Madagascar community parks we visited on our tour, that we can recommend. At each community park an authorized guide is required to take you around. In addition, an advance team of spotters helps find where the animals are hanging out that day.
This system provides additional employment and income for the local community and connects them to the activity and to tourists.
Anja Community Park
Anja Community Park offers one the best opportunities to see ring-tail lemurs in Madagascar. It wasn’t always this way.
Nore, our local guide at Anja Community Park, explained that when the community park began in 1999, much of the forest in the area had been destroyed through slash and burn agricultural practices. The approach of the community park was to begin by planting trees in order to expand the forest and to put a stop to lemur hunting. The aim: to grow lemur populations to attract travelers to the area to see the wildlife.
The result, less than 20 years later?
The ring-tail lemur population has grown from 20 to over 400 thanks to their reforestation and conservation efforts. And it offers an outstanding lemur encounter for travelers. It’s outrageous, actually.
The lemurs were playful and fun, jumping over us, around us, between us. They were clearly in the wild, in their element, in their habitat. But they had grown to trust and understand that humans were no longer a threat.
In addition, Anja Community Park involves over 600 people from the community to work as guides, scouts, cooks and other service providers. Profits from selling tours and guided tourist walks are reinvested into the community. The proceeds aren’t only for reforestation and animal conservation efforts, but also for environmental education, secondary school construction, health clinic maintenance, and other local projects.
V.O.I.M.M.A Community Park
This place will always have a special spot in our hearts; it was the first location where we came face to face with lemurs.
At V.O.I.M.M.A. the local community of around 4,000 people decided to dedicate some of what was once their agricultural land to reforestation – so as to expand the protected rainforest area around Andasibe-Mantadia National Park.
Leva, our community park guide, explained that lemur families require a lot of territory. The endangered indri, in particular enjoy space. The additional rainforest provided by the community park now offers the space and corridors for the various lemur species and families to move about.
This has contributed to an an increase in various lemur populations in the area, including the indri, sifaka, bamboo lemur and brown lemur.
In addition, V.O.I.M.M.A. reinvests half of its profits into community development projects, including building water taps to access clean water and supporting a medical clinic.
Reniala Spiny Forest Reserve
Although Baobab Avenue in western Madagascar is the country’s most famous destination for baobab trees, the Reniala Spiny Forest Reserve near Ifaty in the south is a close second. The name “Reniala” means “mother of the forest,” which is how baobabs are referred to in this area.
Desertification has hit this part of Madagascar hard. As a result, agriculture and cattle farming have become increasingly difficult. People once used the inside of the baobab trees to feed their zebu (a local style of cattle) during the dry seasons. Since 2001 a parcel of 45 hectares of spiny forest has been protected, and the area’s unique nature flourishes once again.
Some of the baobabs in the community park are over 1,000 years old and believed to be among the oldest in all of Madagascar. In addition, the park features over 2,000 plant species, of which more than 90% are endemic, suited to grow only in this particular arid environment.
The area is also a haven for bird watchers. Some species – like the beautiful long-tailed roller – can only be found here.
We chose the longer of the two walking tour options (approximately 2.5 hours) with a local guide through the community park. This allowed us to get up close to some of these ancient baobab trees, the octopus tree and some of the park’s other endemic plants and insects. We even got a glimpse of the rare long-tailed roller as it crossed our path.
As several villages had to be relocated to create the park, a portion of the entrance and tour fees goes to supporting displaced families. In addition, the park also runs environmental education programs and employs twelve local people as guides, scouts and other staff.
Visit Madagascar’s National Parks
Although we’ve just sung the praises of Madagascar’s community parks, don’t neglect the country’s network of 42 national parks. These also play a crucial role in protecting rainforests, wildlife and other species because of the scale of land and space they protect.
Not to mention, they offer excellent opportunities to encounter different species of lemurs and other wildlife – often in the context of fun day hikes and beautiful landscapes.
The entrance fees to these parks contributes to continued conservation and research efforts. A portion of national park fees is also intended to support nearby villages since many communities and families have also been displaced by the conservation and rainforest reclamation effort.
National park employment programs also require visitors to hire a park guide, who is usually accompanied by a team of wildlife spotters.
Recommended National Parks in Madagascar
Here are a few of the national parks we visited in Madagascar we can recommend.
Andasibe-Mantadia National Park
For viewing indri, the largest and apparently most intelligent of all lemur species, this is the place to do it. Not only is it impossible to keep and breed indri in captivity (you'll never find them in a zoo), but indri really only inhabit this tiny area of Madagascar.
We recommend at least a half-day guided walk at Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. This will allow ample time to find the indri and spend time observing them and listening to their unique call. The sifaka and other lemur species also call this park home.
Ranomafana National Park
Ranomafana National Park is home to over eleven lemur species, but is most famous for the very rare golden bamboo lemur. The park features thick rainforest. In order to track wildlife, you must pull yourself through trees and vines. There are walking paths, but the real tracking here begins off path.
At one point, our guide Hery explained, as he pointed to a lush section of rainforest, “You’ll notice that the land is a bit flatter here. That’s because thirty years ago there was a village here. I remember it from when I was a kid.”
When left alone to its own devices, it's remarkable what Mother Nature can do. We saw no signs of human habitat. Trees, vines, ferns, bushes and all the wildlife that comes with it had simply taken over.
Isalo National Park
This is one of the Madagascar’s oldest national parks. It’s also its most popular. For good reason.
Sure, you can see a few lemurs, colorful birds, elephant foot plants and other endemic creatures and flora, but the real draw here are the day- and multi-day hikes through sandstone canyons, caches of rainforest oasis and hidden waterfalls in-between.
The stark contrast of sandstone desertscape and oasis-like swimming holes right next to one another is remarkable. This is not a constructed environment, either. It’s just how Mother Nature came together. That’s why our day hike at Isalo National Park remained a highlight for many in our group.
Community Homestay Programs in Madagascar
Although much of our Madagascar trip was focused on lemurs, wildlife and national/community parks, an essential highlight for most everyone in our group was a village homestay in Fiadanana in the highlands of Madagascar.
What made this experience so memorable wasn’t only the beautiful, serene setting of the village outside of Antsirabe. It was also in part because our host, Arc-en-Ciel (Rainbow) Community Association, and its founder, Yavansu, delivered a unique, engaging experience.
Yavansu had studied sustainable tourism and was a guide in Madagascar for over twenty years. Then he decided he wanted to show travelers a different side of Madagascar than the animals, national parks and beaches. He wanted to focus on its people, culture, and rural areas, and do so in a way that benefited Madagascar’s villages. Five years ago, he decided to bring a community-based tourism approach to his own village where he grew up.
It wasn’t easy at first, he admits. Local people didn’t understand the concept of tourism and were skeptical of travelers. Local superstition fed the notion that foreigners (particularly light-skinned ones) would steal their souls. Locals also couldn’t understand why any traveler would choose to visit their village, to learn about their lives. Finally, how would any of this actually benefit their families and their lives?
Good questions. And a few leaps.
Slowly, Yavansu worked through these challenges and began bringing travelers to see and experience a day and overnight in his village. The association reinvested profits into building primary school buildings, sponsoring children’s school fees (over 80 students now), and improving roads, thereby working together with and earning the trust of the villagers.
Today, 42 people in the community are association members and involved in its tourism and community development activities. The organization also provides work to 14 people who support the travelers’ visits by cooking food, cleaning, playing music, and guiding. The villagers now welcome travelers and are happy to share their culture.
For us travelers, this was a unique experience. Over the course of the day our host fed us some incredible home-made Malagasy food (“this is really farm to table!” someone in our group said, mid forkful). We had a guided walk through the village to explain everything from house design to superstitions. Later, some local musicians gathered for a jam around the bonfire.
A group of G Adventures travelers (usually 10-16 people) visits this village each week from April to November, helping to provide a sustainable source of income for the association so it may grow and pursue its projects. After our village walk Yavansu brought us all into one of the primary school classrooms built by the association over the years.
He shared the association’s goals and how they cooperate with the community: “In Malagasy culture it’s considered disrespectful for your family if you get something for free. It’s necessary to work for it, to earn it. That’s why with all the projects we do — like this room — the community is also contributing, whether it’s providing labor, transport, materials or something else.”
He pointed to the bare hills across the valley. “When my grandfather grew up here, there used to be a forest there. He remembers the lemurs. Now, all the trees are cut down and the land is arid. Children listen more than adults, so we work with the children to try and change behaviors. We ask them if they want the lemurs to come back and how they need to plant trees and protect those trees for life. Once they rebuild the forest the animals will come back.”
After witnessing the Madagascar countryside mainly from the window of our van, we really appreciated this experience. Visiting a local village enabled us to get up close and to better connect with Malagasy culture and people. To know that the tour fees were targeted to educational, conservation and community projects made it that much better.
Plant Trees with a Local Environmental Association
At the end of our day at Isalo National Park our group met up with Delana, one of the founders of Soa Zara Environmental Association, and her local team.
Last year the association purchased a plot of land just outside the national park. The focus of this parcel of land: to plant trees in an effort to reforest and extend the habitat for lemurs and other animals in the area. In addition, Soa Zara also runs sustainable charcoal production and environmental education projects in nearby communities.
For the last year, G Adventures has partnered with Soa Zara and uses a portion of tour fees to buy 150-200 saplings from its nursery located at ITC Lodge for the tour group to plant at the end of their day at Isalo National Park. The association cares for the saplings, with an eye to a new forest growing there in ten years.
Do the math. A tour group a week for eight months of the year equals around 55,000 trees planted by G Adventures travelers in one year.
Challenges notwithstanding, a pretty good start for a forest.
For us, it was a fun and enriching experience to get our hands dirty, plant a few tiny trees, and imagine what it might look like ten years from now.
Conserve and Distribute Clean Water
This item is less an itinerary suggestion, and more about trying to do the right thing, to perhaps make life a little better or easier for a few people that day.
As we departed beautiful Isalo National Park behind to head south, our tour leader, Jose, collected any plastic water bottles we’d used (and saved for days) and filled them with clean water at our lodge in Ranohira.
He explained: “In the south, people are really poor. It's like a desert now after decades of deforestation. It's hard to find water, and much of it isn't clean. So, with each tour group we fill as many bottles as we can with clean water and give them to families along the way who live near the road.”
A few hours later we noticed the land had become even more arid, trees even more rare, homes more fragile. The precariousness of life became clearer. On hut-dotted stretches of road between towns, our bus slowed down and our driver's assistant yelled something to indicate we had clean water.
He handed bottles and jugs of clean water out the window to mothers and children emerging from their homes.
“It's not much, but it helps a bit. At least for today,” Jose said.
This wasn’t an official community-based project or some sort of development program with long-term goals. Instead, it was the initiative of an individual, Jose, who knew the difficult reality of the situation in the south, and who cared and wanted to help.
He was able to use the infrastructure that our tour provided — that we were coming from a location with water and had lots of empty bottles to fill (because travelers can afford bottled water), and were driving through an area without clean water — to offer a little something to those who needed it.
Responsible Travel Tips for Traveling in Madagascar
These responsible travel tips are not meant to limit or restrict what you do in Madagascar. Instead, they are aimed at providing advice for travelers to engage and connect in a meaningful and enriching way that also benefits the local environment, culture and economy. You can read more responsible travel tips here.
1. Don't visit animal parks that offer photo opportunities as you handle lemurs or other wildlife
Although it may be tempting to goose your social media feed with a selfie as you hold a lemur, think twice about what you are doing. Consider avoiding animal parks where the main focus seems to be photo opportunities and selfies that involve handling lemurs or other wildlife.
These animals are not meant to be held or positioned for your convenience; they are meant to be in their natural habitat, in the wild. Often, these animals kept in captivity aren’t treated very well, and are broken by fear or sedated with drugs. Spend your money at one of the national or community parks instead.
2. Bring a refillable water bottle
Unfortunately, the availability of purified water dispensers to refill your water bottle is limited mainly to a few places in big cities. However, you can still reduce your plastic bottle footprint by purchasing large containers of water (e.g., 5-7 liters) from the grocery store and refilling your bottle, rather than purchasing a bunch of single use 1-1.5 liter water bottles.
Even better, use a Steripen (or similar) to sterilize water from the tap.
Note: If you do purchase bottled water, remember to save the bottles and refill them if you're going to a place that might need clean water. See #5 above.
3. Understand child welfare issues and don’t give to begging children
Children are everywhere in Madagascar. You’ll almost certainly be faced with children begging or selling things. Although it’s difficult to say no in the face of such poverty, don’t give directly to these children. This article explains why and offers alternatives, including how to find reputable organizations or associations that are working with local families and investing in local communities.
Here's another good resource on child welfare in travel.
4. If you want to volunteer, ask a lot of questions to ensure you’re not doing unintentional harm
Madagascar receives a lot of international volunteers each year. During our trip, we witnessed a fair number of them doing a variety of projects and tasks. If you are interested in volunteering in Madagascar, we recommend that you read this article first and ask serious questions of the host organization before you make any decisions.
It’s essential that you ensure your volunteering “work” (e.g., painting houses, etc.) does not take away employment or jobs from local people. While we understand the motivation to help behind volunteering, many of us wondered about the actual lasting effects and impacts of the “work” being done. It's also often unclear where the very high voluntourism fees paid by the volunteers — in Madagascar and elsewhere — go.
Madagascar: Tourism to Its Future
While it’s true that Madagascar's economic and environmental challenges are much greater than what sustainable tourism can solve, it’s important to understand how tourism does make a difference in the lives of individuals and local communities. Travelers can and do play an important role in Madagascar in lemur and wildlife conservation, as well as in community development.
Our recent trip to Madagascar underscored this reality.
All the different ways in which parks and community organizations engaged throughout our G Adventures tour itinerary demonstrated the effects and the interconnection. Together, these initiatives can have a network effect, too. When tourism engages and works with local communities and people around the country, money, resources and impact is spread, including to rural areas that are often forgotten. It’s a reminder of the impact sustainable tourism can have — not only in providing an immersive experience for the traveler, but also on local individuals, communities and a country.