The game park aims to attract tourists who want to experience the bush without compromising their creature comforts. Pictures: SANParks
The game park aims to attract tourists who want to experience the bush without compromising their creature comforts. Pictures: SANParks
An artists impression of one of the proposed resorts in the Kruger.
An artists impression of one of the proposed resorts in the Kruger.

The Tourism face of Kruger National Park is in for a make-over that could make a big difference to the way visitors experience the park and its camp facilities.

The changes will first become evident in the food-catering area, which is an old bugbear. But in time visitors will also start noticing it in the accommodation aspect, in the shape of technologically advanced interpretive facilities, in more activities offered, and in better traffic controls.

Change will also come to the country’s 21 other national parks. But as the flagship park, receiving about a million visitors a year and generating by far the biggest tourism income, Kruger will be in the vanguard of the sweeping review by SA National Parks (SANParks).

The general aim is to improve the quality of visitors’ experience and to put the parks on a firm business footing. But a big underlying objective is to broaden the appeal for black people.

It has been worrying SANParks chief executive David Mabunda that nearly two decades into SA’s democracy, black tourists keep trickling into parks. Only 29.5 percent of all visitors to Kruger are black. More worryingly, only 8.2 percent of them choose to overnight in the park.

It is considered vital for parks to have the support not only of their surrounding communities, but also of the broader population. This is even more important for an institution like SANParks that generates 85 percent of its own income, with the small remainder coming from the state coffer. In other countries, the split mostly works the other way round.

The state’s shrinking contribution raises questions, particularly as the government has identified tourism as an economic driver and job creator. Kruger is estimated to contribute R2 billion a year to the economy. It provides 1 932 jobs and generates an estimated 10 000 more in its region, altogether providing a livelihood for 41 500 people.

As a state institution, and one caring for several million hectares of some of the world’s most precious wilderness areas, SANParks deserves better government support.

But it seems to have accepted that changes to society have created new priorities that will cause them to have to rely less on contributions from the treasury.

It is much for this reason, too, that they have embarked on what they call their 2022 Strategy, meaning that the innovations will be systematically implemented over the next 10 years.

Some of the changes are bound to be controversial. Already plans for two large hotel-type developments inside Kruger have had some conservationists charging that it ran counter to the park’s conservation obligation and that it would harm its wilderness atmosphere.

Mabunda says, however, it was part of the transition required to make parks fit within the new SA society.

In style, the proposed buildings better fit the description of “lodge”. One is a 119-room complex of single-story chalets and a main lodge set among the trees on about 14ha just inside the park’s boundary near its Malelane entrance gate.

The other is intended to be a relatively low-rise, double-storey building with 125 rooms on a site inside Skukuza camp where the staff quarters used to be. Unlike the existing accommodation, they will offer full hotel services. This should prove attractive to black patrons, whose preference for less rustic facilities is said to have been well illustrated by experience in the Golden Gate National Park. There, black people made up 30 percent of visitors before renovations started on the park’s hotel in 2009. During renovations, their numbers dropped to 10 percent and when the hotel re-opened in 2010, it shot up to 40 percent.

Heading the changes is Glenn Phillips, SANParks’s managing executive of tourism and marketing.

He insists that the plans, once finalised, will be well researched with the help of universities and will be implemented step by step in ways that will avoid alienating the traditional market and compromising the conservation aspect.

It will come down to a “balancing act”. Some may enjoy a campfire and the night sounds, and others a more jolly affair. Ways will need to be found to see that one group’s way of enjoyment does not impact on that of another.

It will similarly have to be carefully assessed whether, or how, new amenities and activities affect the wilderness aspect. Phillips, for instance, finds it surprising that cycling is not allowed inside camps, or outside camps in parks where there are no dangerous animals.

“One should think cycling should be encouraged,” he says.

Walking trails with overnight camping sites could become prominent features in reserves like Addo Elephant National Park which, away from its lion and elephant areas, offer precious wilderness experiences for hikers. Kruger, again, has a range of remarkable rock-art sites that could be featured in a special rock-art route.

Events catering, such as for conferences and weddings, could make park camps destinations in their own right. The idea is that this should help draw more people to parks and so familiarise them with their attractions and the important conservation role they play.

“Even the needs of bikers must be considered. Surely there can be routes and places for them to get to without causing a disturbance?” says Phillips.

After years of fielding complaints about quality, franchises are being considered.

These big brands, says Phillips, have firm quality standards that franchise holders have to live up to or risk losing their business.

To avoid intruding on the reserve ambience, their billboards will be small and discreetly positioned. Also, at least 10 percent of their menu items will need to offer a local flavour, “like, say, buffalo pies”.

The qualities, amenities and servicing of existing huts and bungalows will also be reviewed. SANParks is looking at switching to greener technologies, such as solar power.

A big requirement in Phillips’s book is that of more tourist-friendly interpretive facilities.

He says it was the one thing that struck him on a recent study tour of North American parks.

“They are brilliant, also by using modern technologies, at giving visitors information about the history, intricacies and such aspects of their surrounds.”

Traffic congestion particularly during peak holiday periods in the southern regions of the park has been slated for fixing. Aerial surveys have shown that on some roads, delivery trucks contribute to the problem. This might be fixed by restricting their use of such roads to fixed hours.

Ways of easing congestion that are as often caused by lion sightings are under consideration, as well. One idea is to shut roads once a determined number of cars had converged at a sighting. Traffic could be diverted or let through as others leave the spot.

Somewhere in the thinking, though, there seems to be the makings of a bigger strategy to reduce private-vehicle use and to encourage the use of parks or contracted game-viewing vehicles.

Already visitors to the new upmarket lodge at Malelane will need to leave their vehicles in a parking area at the reserve’s entrance gate and make use of the park’s transport services and game-viewing vehicles.

Featuring prominently in the business plan are proposals for striking up a better relationship with surrounding communities.

Using the term “constituency building”, it includes working more closely with the surrounding tourist operators, such as by passing on bookings to hotels and lodges outside the park when camps are booked out.

But one of the most intricate challenges is to develop better co-operation with the many villagers and communities living along Kruger’s western boundary, many in conditions of poverty and unemployment.

The successful land-restitution claims that some had on almost half of Kruger Park have made the situation more compelling.

The claimants were persuaded by the government not to take possession of the land, in exchange for financial compensation. But the parks authorities realise that the situation will remain unsettled unless they have a stake in the park that allows them to share in its benefits. This will require innovative thinking.

Expecting parks to engage in community development is stretching their function. However, the SANParks business review reaches so wide that it is looking at charging for the environmental services it renders to broader society and the state. Among these are water-purification of rivers, air-cleaning, carbon sinks and biodiversity protection.

Mentioning these services serves as a reminder of the important environmental role the parks fulfil. - Cape Times