By Suren Naidoo

South Africa's first United Nation's world heritage site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in Zululand, has gone from having a negative tourism growth rate in 2000 - when it secured global heritage status - to boasting a 59 percent increase in tourism accommodation establishments and a 20 percent growth in the number of beds.

Average occupancy rates of tourism accommodation in the park also grew from less than the national average to more than it.

This was according to arts, culture and tourism MEC Weziwe Thusi and iSimangaliso's chief executive, Andrew Zaloumis, at the provincial launch of Tourism Month at Lake St Lucia on Friday.

Thusi and Tourism KwaZulu-Natal chairperson Seshi Chonco echoed environmental affairs and tourism minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk's statements - made at the national launch of Tourism Month last week - that the tourism industry needed to face the challenge of climate change.

Thusi and Chonco pointed to climate change and transformation as the issues posing "the greatest challenges facing the tourism industry" in the province.

The theme for Tourism Month this year is "tourism responding to climate change", and, in line with the theme, they said it was significant that the provincial launch had happened at South Africa's first world heritage site.

"As much as 10 percent of KwaZulu-Natal is under conservation and forms a crucial part of our tourism offering. However, climate change puts all this at risk," said Thusi.

Referring to the international conference on climate change and tourism held in Davos, Switzerland, last year, she said the tourism sector should rapidly respond to climate change and reduce its greenhouse emissions if it was to grow in a sustainable manner.

"It is important to preserve our heritage for future generations. Heritage does not only refer to our history but includes our environment," she said.

Chonco said the growing demand for environmentally based tourism experiences had to have a knock-on effect for communities close to invaluable wildlife reserves.

"Up until now, it has been these very communities that have watched from the sidelines as wealthy players have profited from places that have rightfully belonged to them for generations," he said.