Help Market South Africa – Financial Mail 2012
It was suggested in the FM cover story of April 6 that the “rich” had caused the oversupply of beds in wildlife tourism.
Peter Anderson , director of Livingstones Supply Company, a tourism services group had the following to say.
Possibly true; however, among these “rich” are people passionate about conservation and tourism who have invested resources with dreams of uplifting and empowering local communities, establishing rural tourism, protecting biodiversity and living out dreams. Wildlife tourism people are often philanthropic, as conservation and engaging rural communities are part of what wildlife tourism is all about.
Sohebele closed down four months after the 1976 Soweto riots because of the sharp decrease in visitors to SA. Divisive policies and political unrest helped the country top the list as one of the world’s least popular tourism destinations.
One can understand establishments closing down in those times but it is difficult to understand this happening today.
There are now around 700 wildlife tourism lodges providing 14000 beds. Yes, people and companies with money have invested in this sector to cause this “oversupply”, but what have they achieved?
In each lodge you will find a mix of skills — wildlife guides, housekeepers, managers, chefs and more, all having participated in training and skills transfer initiatives. This combination of skills, operating styles and design has won SA some of the highest international awards. We are the world leader in wildlife tourism.
Taking direct jobs, dependants and those earning a living adjoining conservation areas providing produce, services, curios, cultural tourism and second-tier travel services, it is estimated that 400000 people are supported by this sector, though it represents only 4,5% of our 300000 beds.
Should we be blaming those who established this sector or should we be doing something about this? Seventy recognised leisure tourism companies met, through facilitation by the Tourism Business Council of SA (TBCSA), in Johannesburg in June 2011 to better understand the challenges faced. With a large percentage losing money it was resolved that there was indeed a crisis.
Black entrepreneurs are not investing in this sector. Why? It is not profitable, as demonstrated by NEF and IDC feasibility and occupancy studies.
TBCSA delivered a number of resolutions to SA Tourism and the minister, the key message being to implement changes to increase the number of “leisure tourists” to SA. Despite reports of tourist numbers reaching 8,3m in 2011, occupancy in this sector was 29%, its lowest in 35 years.
Some say, “allow a correction to reduce the oversupply”. In a sector which supports 400000 people and delivers a large percentage of our tourism revenue, we could be making a huge mistake by not increasing our efforts to grow these markets. Tourism is one of the biggest potential sustainable job creators and a critical driver of our economy. Marketing the brand of SA should be escalated by government as a priority.
Africa’s biggest tourism exhibition and the world’s largest wildlife tourism expo, Indaba 2012, opens in Durban next week. With wildlife tourism experiencing growth in countries neighbouring SA there has to be more we can do to market ourselves as a safari, rural tourism and leisure destination.
It’s time for SA Tourism to recognise the crisis and engage the sector in a joint effort to increase our leisure tourist numbers.
Anderson is a director of Livingstones Supply Company, a tourism services group
Blood on the game path – Financial Mail 2012
Too few tourists and too many beds is hammering the game lodge sector.
Too much of a good thing can be bad, a reality a large proportion of SA’s more than 700 private game lodge operators catering for ecotourists are learning the hard way. “The game lodge sector is in dire straits,” says Colin Bell, an ecotourism industry consultant.
“There’s blood out there,” says Jan van Heteren, owner of Jaci’s Lodges, operator of two lodges under concession in North West province’s Madikwe game reserve. “No more than 5% of game lodges are making money.”
“The Americans are still coming,” says David Evans, a director of MalaMala. “The big fall has been in visitors from Europe.” The result, he adds, is that many lodges have been forced to cut prices and raise commissions to travel agents.
Chick Legh, owner of The Outpost, a concession lodge in the northern part of the Kruger National Park, says visitors pay R3500/day each but his lodge receives only about R1700 after agents’ commission.
Director of ecotourism services firm Livingstone s Supply Co Peter Anderson says the slump has sparked big staff layoffs by lodges. He and Bell lay the blame for the lodge sector’s plight on tourism marketing bodies. “The lodge sector is under threat because we don’t get enough foreign tourists,” says Bell. “Kenya, Botswana and even Zimbabwe are pumping but SA is stagnating.”
SA gets, at best, 1,2m leisure tourists annually after adjusting for factors such as people visiting family and friends, says Anderson. “We need to at least double that number.”
No doubt SA needs to up foreign visitor numbers. But it appears unfair to lay all the blame for the lodge sector’s woes on tourism bodies. Though Van Heteren agrees that tourism marketing is falling short he also believes there has been overdevelopment of lodges.
“The rich have hijacked the [lodge] market,” Van Heteren says. “They have thrown money at developing lavish, five-star lodges. The result is that the market is overtraded by look-alike boutique hotels in the bush.”
Evans agrees. He says many people buy a game farm for their own use and then realise that it is extremely costly to run. They then open a game lodge hoping to cover costs, not realising that it is not an overnight path to profit. “It took us 22 years to make our first profit out of a joint venture with the Botswana government,” he says.
Even a concession in a game park is not a route to quick riches. “Our concession costs us R1m/year,” says Van Heteren.
Evans also criticises the lodge sector’s look- alike nature. “Most focus on taking visitors on photographic game drives,” he says . “That’s no different from what we began doing 50 years ago. Innovative thinking is needed.
“Increasingly, people want adventure tourism,” he says . A few lodges are moving away from stereotyped game drives by offering game viewing using horses, quad bikes and even elephants.
Van Heteren sees European visitors as the key to the lodge sector’s recovery. “It looks like Europe’s economy will take another two years to recover.”
Evans takes a pragmatic view. “Some [lodge owners] will leave and buyers will pick up bargains. But the animals aren’t going to go away.”
Executives on a wild bike ride – Financial Mail 23 August 2012
The Tour de Tuli is fast becoming a favourite ride for SA corporates. Max Gebhardt went along to find out why it is so popular.
Russel Friedman is a legend. A couple of weeks before the start of the Tour de Tuli, he dislocated his shoulder and separated his AC joint in a freak accident. To repair the damage he underwent surgery and had a metal plate inserted into his shoulder just two weeks before the start of what has to be one of Southern Africa’s premier four-day mountain bike tours.
An accident like this would have laid low a man half his age, yet on day one at the Limpopo Valley Camp in Botswana, there was Friedman. He was not only planning to complete the Tour de Tuli, covering 280km through three countries, he was planning to lead our group.
“It would have been really difficult for me not to ride, seeing I had convinced my family and friends to participate. I had also raised a lot of extra sponsorship from our US agents and this was a major factor for me to at least try to ride,” says Friedman, who is a founder and director of Wilderness Safaris.
He was instrumental in starting the Tour de Tuli. “I have been a passionate cyclist for the past 26 years. We did the first ride on road bikes from Johannesburg to Durban. We realised after that we could offer something special to cyclists by putting on a tour in protected park areas. It was also a way of raising quite a lot of money while getting enjoyment from the activity.”
The money raised by the 320-odd cyclists who participate in the tour is used for Wilderness Safaris’ Children in the Wilderness (CITW) programme. This initiative hosts children who live alongside the areas where Wilderness Safaris operates and teaches them the importance of conservation and tourism.
It is this element, of riding through some of the most beautiful parts of Botswana and Zimbabwe while making a contribution to conservation, that attracts so many corporates and their clients.
Livingstones Supply Co director Peter Anderson says as a sponsor of and participant in the Tour de Tuli he cannot think of a better way to make a difference while doing something healthy and fun.
“I have visited a number of Wilderness Safaris’ camps throughout Southern Africa while CITW programmes have been under way. Through this I was able to see at first hand just how children in areas adjacent to protected reserves benefit from the programme.”
Friedman says the tour is about the chance to enjoy the beauty and silence of mountain biking while connecting with clients and nature.
“It is a way to reward customers and staff. It also provides an opportunity to bond with clients while giving back to society and helping with the long-term understanding of why we need to preserve these wild places.”
Each year the Tour de Tuli route changes slightly to give the regulars a different experience.
On day two of this year’s tour, the route included a loop allowing us to spend two nights at the Maramani Camp. Maramani offers the best camping site on the tour. The tent camp is placed in the Limpopo river bed, with the various facilities such as showers, canteen and bar on the river bank under the fever trees made famous by Rudyard Kipling.
The loop had two options, 45km or 72km. Group seven, under the leadership of Friedman, decided to do the longer loop. This allowed us to fully appreciate how rural communities in Zimbabwe are struggling. The cattle we passed were emaciated; the countryside in many places was devoid of even a blade of grass.
“One wonders how one can eke out an existence in such a barren, stark landscape,” reflected Manny Friedman, Russel’s brother. “It reinforces the need to support this organisation.”
Our ride through Zimbabwe on days one, two and three brought home how bad the drought is in that country, apparently the worst it has experienced since 1984. There was hardly a drop of water in sight during our four days of riding. Even the Limpopo river has dried up into a series of stagnant pools.
The UN World Food Programme said at the end of last month that it expects 1,6m Zimbabweans will need food aid next year, up from the 1m who received aid this year.
Despite this, the tour was once again superbly organised. Day one had its usual challenge of getting from Botswana into Zimbabwe via the mighty Shashe river – a 1km walk across a very sandy river bed. The only relief from the trudge across is the knowledge that you have only a couple of kilometres to the finish and there awaits a cool beer and a massage on the banks of the Limpopo in the cool shade of the fever trees. Day one is perhaps some of the easiest riding, with wonderful sweeping single tracks following old elephant paths through the mopane trees. But it remains a long 72km day in the saddle, plus the time it takes to cross the borders.
The dry conditions also meant that we had fantastic game sightings whenever we were near water. On the first evening at the Maramani camp a herd of five elephants wandered down to the SA bank, providing the perfect setting to the end of the day.
Day two’s loop started cold and the ascent at the start up a rocky narrow single track did not perk up anyone’s spirits. But this all dissipated as we headed out on the smooth donkey tracks into the Zimbabwe countryside.
Our day finished slightly earlier after we decided as a group to avoid the “gauntlet of hell” as we nicknamed it – the last sandy stretch back into camp.
“Today you will be tested,” warned the route handbook about day three. “It is a long and tough day of cycling.” What it forgot to say was that it was hot dog Sunday. The best brunch stop on the tour and a chance to taste the freshly squeezed orange juice from Nottingham Estate. And tea at the majestic Sentinel Ranch, a lodge literally built into the rocks.
One of the stand-out features of the tour is its catering, and of course the sand, the camaraderie and Jonathan Robinson’s Bean There Coffee Company. This year proved to be no different.
Each day your group, which consists of between 10 and 16 riders, stops for tea after about 20km of riding. This is followed by brunch at the roughly 45km-50km mark. Both stops are always perfectly situated. But day three’s were by far the best on the tour.
The route up to the brunch stop is challenging. There is a hard push through sandy roads of the Nottingham Estate, which splits the group into a series of individual riders seeking out the best route. This is followed by a short sharp rocky climb to Fly Camp, the brunch stop, with its views all the way to the Limpopo and SA.
Day three can’t be left without mention of how we got lost and landed up climbing a dam wall in our search for the route to the Kuduland camp, the venue for our last night’s stay in Zimbabwe.
The final day’s riding turned out to be our best game viewing day as we entered the forest bordering the Limpopo with the wildlife congregated on the banks seeking water and shade. It was a beautiful ride which was supposed to bring us to the informal border post to cross into SA. But just when we thought we had it in sight, we managed to take a wrong turn. After we reached the top of a ridge we realised we were lost. Luckily we didn’t have too far to go to find our way back to the correct route and across the border into the Mapungubwe National Park in SA, our last camp site of the tour.
It is a relief climbing that last hill into the camp but it is also with a tinge of sadness that you realise you have to say goodbye to people who just days ago were strangers but are now firm friends.
Article by: Max Gebhardt
Image by: Grant Roddan