Bold action from the tourism industry to #savewater

In December we wrote a piece about how Level 3 water tariffs would affect tourism businesses. We were feeling like Cassandra, a character from Greek mythology who was gifted with the power of prophecy but cursed that no one should believe her since the piece attracted no comments. 

But we imagine that the issue became a reality for tourism managers in January when they opened their rates bills and discovered that their water bills were at least double what they were expecting. There are two issues here – the first is how tourism businesses are charged for water and the second how much water tourism businesses consume. We won’t be discussing the former issue here and we understand that the issue of high water charges for tourism businesses is something that Cape Town Tourism and the City of Cape Town are looking into. We’re more concerned with the second issue because even though tourism businesses are looking to reduce water costs, there’s a more urgent need to reduce water consumption

We’re willing to acknowledge that its difficult for tourism businesses to control how much water is consumed simply because they can’t control the big consumers of water – guests. There’s ample information on what water saving devices tourism businesses can install and how staff and management can change their operating procedures to save water. The worry for many tourism businesses is how to rope in guests into saving water – without compromising guest satisfaction. Well, tourism businesses are going to have to swallow the bullet and change guest expectations simply because water security is more important. This is how The Backpack puts it: 

Here at The Backpack in Cape Town, we try our very best to do as much as we can to save water during this crisis. Getting guests involved is the only way to truly see a difference as they feel like they can contribute and become responsible in playing a role to saving our water. With 100 guests walking in and out of our hostel daily, that is many toilet flushes, showers and washing of hands going on. So here is what we do to try our best to reduce our water consumption.

Also, Cape Town is not the only place with water shortages, so some visitors already understand the issues and are willing to do their part. Others may only need to be made aware of the issues and asked to change their behaviour. Big travel company, TUI, surveyed their customers and found that more than 60% were prepared to change their behaviour on holiday if it was good for the environment. So many guests won’t be surprised (or horrified) if you asked them to get involved in water saving. 

Desperate times call for bold action. Let’s see what other businesses are doing to save water, and get guests involved in saving water:

Water in toilets

The Backpack has a flushing policy to try and reduce the amounts of times the toilet is flushed during the day. Putting solid items in toilet cisterns, like Moonglow Guest House has done, also works to reduce the amount of water used to fill the cistern. 

The Backpack also realised that asking guests to flush less works well too.

Signage encouraging water saving

Signage is important in making guests aware of the issues and advising them what to do about it. The Backpack has fun and playful posters around the hostel so that guests feel like that want to get involved with water saving, not that they are forced and inconvenienced into doing so. 

It’s important to be specific in signage. For some people, 15 minutes may be a short shower, but in desperate times that’s pretty long!. Here’s a list of signage you can put up:

  • Take five-minute showers
  • Close the tap when lathering in the shower
  • A sign next to taps asking guests not to let the water run when brushing their teeth

Water saving in showers

The Townhouse Hotel, The Backpack and Moonglow Guesthouse all have buckets in showers to collect water while a guest showers or while the water is getting hot. The Backpack has found that almost an entire bucket is filled during just one shower!

What to do with the water saved in the bucket in the shower? The obvious thing to do, like the Townhouse Hotel and Moonglow Guesthouse does, is to water plants with the water collected

Townhouse Hotel recycles water

Here’s another great idea from the Backpack – they ask the guests to tip the water from their bucket into the big bins which they have placed outside each bathroom. In addition to giving their plants much needed hydration, the water is also used for cleaning. 

Essential cleaning only

On the subject of cleaning, car rental company, Around About Cars offers a discount on unwashed cars (they’d be cleaned on the inside). We’d also like to see them working in partnership with The Backpack on using water collected in The Backpack showers to wash Around About Cars. 

Water saving devices

Now is the time to invest in water saving technology, the simplest being tap aerators and flow restrictors that you can buy from a hardware store. Taps at The Backpacker have aerators that limit the amount water that is used when people wash their hands and brush their teeth.

You might think this is optional, but the City makes it clear that non-residential customers must install water efficient parts…

Some businesses are thinking out-of-the-box. Green Elephant has two large tanks that store used water from their washing machine, and this water is used to flush their two grey water toilets.

Green Elephant also collects rainwater from the roof and stores it in a 2 500 litre tank. Peninsula All-Suites Hotel has a more complicated set up with ground water being captured in holding tanks on the hotel’s roof, and then used for cleaning via a unique rooftop pumping system.

Water saving devices don’t have to be high-tech. BIG Backpackers got creative and uses buckets (their yoghurt containers) to catch water from air-conditioner outlet pipes. This water helps keep the plants in the garden green. 

Swimming pools

The restrictions above also make mention of swimming pools. Swimming pools are important for the customer experience, but let’s face it – they’re big consumers of potable water, and if you don’t know what that means, it means DRINKABLE water. Water in swimming pools evaporates and under Level 3B water restrictions, you’re not allowed to top it up automatically. You’re also meant to have a pool cover “if practically possible”. The City of Cape Town has taken drastic action and is not opening many public swimming pools during the week – particularly those that don’t get used much. So the pools are covered most of the time – except when they’re being used.

But what is “practically possible” at an accommodation establishment? BIG Backpackers proves that using a pool cover is possible – if you’re willing to make the effort. Their pool is always covered unless guests ask to use the pool. It really peeves them that a nearby guesthouse doesn’t cover their very large pool, and with good reason – shouldn’t we all be doing our bit?

When they realised that it was rarely used, Green Elephant Backpackers got radical and emptied their swimming pool. We’re not suggesting all accommodation should do the same, but we recommend you have a pool cover, always cover the pool at night and only uncover it on request. After all, there may be many days when the pool will either not get used, or will only get used late in the day. 

Water-efficient behaviour

We assume that even though a manager or owner of a tourism establishment is aware of and acting on water saving, that the staff are equally aware and are involved in saving water. New operational procedures have to be created with water saving in mind, and staff have to be trained on these. For example, at Green Elephant Backpackers staff have been trained to run the washing machine at full capacity. The same could apply to dishwashers, and staff could be trained not to let water run when washing dishes. 


The prize for radical action has to go to Dongola Guest House who removed the taps from their bathtubs, but told guests why they did so. Kudos to them for realising that bathtubs have no place in the scheme of things given the dire water shortages in Cape Town. And just so you know, bath tubs are not a criteria for getting graded by the Tourism Grading Council of South Africa, so you can remove them and still maintain your grading stars. 

Time to step-up

Cape Town’s tourism’s performance in December was great – over a half a million arrivals at the airport and 79.9% occupancy in accommodation establishments. We don’t know the exact number of bednights this converts to, but can tell that it’s substantial. Now, perhaps some people find the tone of this blog post accusatory, but we have to remember that every tourist in Cape Town is a consumer of water, and that we cannot promote tourism at the expense of water security. Instead, if every tourism business did its part in saving water, and encouraging visitors to save water, we could find a solution that works for Capetonians, visitors and the tourism industry. As of 20 March, we have 18,6% of usable water left and with winter a few weeks away and rain uncertain, it’s past time for the entire tourism industry to step up. 

These are examples of the bold action tourism businesses are taking to reduce water consumption. You may be doing something not mentioned here, so please share it with us on Facebook @responsiblecapetown or Twitter @respCPT