The Drakensberg Cable Car project will be a shot in the arm for tourism in KZN and the country as a whole, writes KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Development and Tourism Michael Mabuyakhulu.
Durban - In the late 1800s, a French engineer, Gustave Eiffel, rattled the inner sanctum of the leading lights of the French arts community when he proposed building an iconic structure that was not only deemed unfeasible by the French upper crust but which they also believed was artistically tasteless.
The story is that when Eiffel presented his idea – which he himself had bought from two other engineers – to the French government to build the tower in commemoration of the centenary of the French Revolution, a committee of 300 (representing one member for each metre of the tower’s height) was formed, including some of the prominent figures of the French arts establishment of the time.
In their petition, published in a newspaper, the committee was not diplomatic in voicing its disdain for the project:
“To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour de Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for 20 years… we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”
As fate would have it, the tower was eventually completed on March, 31, 1889, without dwarfing other highly prized Paris tourist attractions, as had been predicted.
More than 100 years later, the structure is not only one of the most enduring symbols of French scientific achievement, but is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world, having been visited by more than 250 million people since construction.
But what, you may ask, does the Eiffel tower have to do with the province of KZN?
We in the provincial Department of Economic Development and Tourism believe the lessons of how the Eiffel Tower came about are instructive after our recent public consultations around one of the most ambitious projects in KZN – the construction of the Drakensberg Cable Car.
To ensure that KZN sharpened its competitive and comparative edge as a tourist attraction, we put together a 20-year tourism masterplan around key projects that needed to be pursued by the province to compete in the global tourism market.
As part of the plan, six iconic catalytic projects, including the Drakensberg Cable Car, were identified as being critical for unlocking the potential of the tourism industry in KZN. The other projects include the statue of King Shaka, the Bluff Bridge and the Isandlwana Development Precinct.
The plan was informed by many factors, chief among which is the fact that tourism is emerging as one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, as evidenced by statistics which show that last year more than 1 billion international tourist arrivals were recorded in the world.
Significantly, Africa is not only emerging as the next frontier of growth in the world, but is the second-fastest growing region after Asia, a scenario which presents a plethora of opportunities for the tourism industry in the province. Research has shown that the continent of Africa is increasingly becoming one of the province’s key sources of tourism markets.
This means that the economic vicissitudes of the African continent will have a direct impact on the province. Critically, Durban is currently the net attractor of domestic tourism in the province and the construction of the King Shaka International Airport has put the province in a strong position to attract more international tourist arrivals. In short, we believe that to continue to attract more domestic and international tourists, it cannot be business as usual.
It is for this reason that last year we commissioned consultants, Graham Muller and Associates, to do a feasibility study on the construction of the cableway in the Drakensberg mountains.
After a painstaking process, which investigated the possibility of the construction of the cable car at no less than 16 sites, the study found that it was feasible to build a cable car at the Busingatha site in Mount Amery.
As the report from the consultants puts it: “The Drakensberg cableway is envisioned as a world-class tourism attraction in the Busingatha Valley, just south of Royal Natal National Park.
“It is envisaged that this will be a one-of-a-kind attraction providing tourists of all ages and physical prowess the opportunity to ascend in comfort and safety close to the summit of Mount Amery. Visitors will be able to enjoy (on most days) extensive vistas of the Drakensberg escarpment on top and of the valleys below.
“On cloudy days, the vista will offer views of spectacularly beautiful mountain peaks jutting out from a moving sea of white cloud filling the valleys below.
“The development will constitute a sensitively engineered balance between eco-tourism and conservation-related facilities, top-class nature and cultural education interpretative centres, together with a wide range of recreational, hospitality and commercial services,” the report said.
The development will be located in the northern Drakensberg mountains near Bergville, an estimated four-hour drive from either Johannesburg or Durban.
The preferred site is also in close proximity to other major nature conservation and recreational areas such as the Okhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Park and Spionkop and Chelmsford dams in KZN, Golden Gate National Park, Witsieshoek Mountain Resort and Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve in the Free State; and the Afriski Snow Skiing and Mountain Biking Resort in Lesotho.
The majority of tourists will travel to the cableway via the N3 national route, from either Joburg or Durban. Annual traffic figures indicate a steady increase in road traffic along the N3 national route.
In 2011, an average of more than 11 000 vehicles moved through the Tugela toll plaza daily, or more than 4 million annually. This is an increase from just over 8 000 daily in 2003. The base of the cableway would be accessible by travelling approximately 60km off the N3 national route.
We made an undertaking to embark on a thorough process of consultation with all the community members and interested parties that would be affected by the cableway.
As such, last month we met with communities that were largely from the three traditional councils, which will be directly affected by the cableway, and the general community from the uThukela District. The project received an overwhelming endorsement from the more than 15 000 people who attended the event.
We will also meet all interested parties to ensure that the process is transparent and all parties are given ample opportunity to air their opinions.
We urge communities to engage with us in good faith, without pursuing sectarian interests and being blind to the bigger picture.
The fact is that none of us can imagine Durban today without the iconic Moses Mabhida Stadium. Yet, there were some among us who thought that this was another vanity project, which would not meaningfully contribute to the visual aesthetics of our city nor the economy of our province.
In India for instance, where they have introduced a cable car concept not dissimilar to ours in the Kashmir mountain range, they have witnessed a rapid upsurge in tourist numbers as well as remarkable economic figures.
It is estimated that since the Kashmir cable car became operational, the region has achieved an additional turnover of $5 490 990 (R56.6-million).
Critically, the Drakensberg Cable Car will have a domino development effect in the area. These include, among others, a proposed tranquil resort comprising accommodation ranging from camping sites to hotels and lodges.
We also need to bear in mind that in the shifting sands of the global economic landscape, only those countries which are constantly shaping their competitive and comparative advantages will remain relevant.
Like the Eiffel Tower, we hope the project, barring any other major stumbling block, can put the province on the world tourism map. - The Mercury
l Mabuyakhulu is the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Development and Tourism.