Durban - The provincial government has thrown its political weight behind a “game-changing” plan to boost tourism in KwaZulu-Natal by creating a 7km cable car route to the top of the Drakensberg at a cost of R500-million.
If the plan goes ahead, the cable car will carry visitors to the top of the escarpment near the Royal Natal National Park and return at a cost of around R200 for adults, with a journey time of about 22 minutes each way.
Releasing an 80-page feasibility study into the project in Durban on Tuesday, Economic Development and Tourism MEC Mike Mabuyakhulu said he was convinced the project would dramatically improve tourism revenue in KZN and attract at least 300 000 cable-car visitors a year (820 a day).
The report is likely to spark rigorous debate with several observers questioning whether the scheme makes financial sense for investors.
The proposed base station would be located in the rural Mnweni area, at least 40km off the main N3, near KZN’s border with Lesotho and the Free State.
The panoramic summit site is Mount Amery, which is situated between the Ifidi Pass and the Amphitheatre.
It was not clear who would pay the construction costs of between R420m and R500m or the annual operating costs of around R20m, but Mabuyakhulu appealed to private investors to “join hands with the government in making this project a success”.
Previous plans to build a cable car and casino in the same area were vigorously opposed by wilderness and mountain conservation groups, and the latest project is likely to be met with a similar degree of opposition.
Although the Mount Amery site is on communal land owned by the Ingonyama Trust, the site is a stone’s throw from the boundary of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site which is protected under a UN convention as an area of “outstanding universal value”.
Mabuyakhulu recognised the need to “strike a balance between environmental preservation and potential economic fortunes” and committed the provincial government to a full environmental impact assessment (EIA) rather than a more rudimentary basis assessment process.
There would be no “short cuts” in the EIA process and the province would prefer to get buy-in from all stakeholders.
Nevertheless, said the MEC, the provincial government was not shy about stating its strong support for the project, which he believed would “dramatically change the tourism landscape of the province” and “awaken the sleeping giant of the Drakensberg region”.
“We chose this area owing to the fact that it is not only one of the world’s breathtaking natural wonders, but also because it has the potential of further enhancing the competitiveness of the province with regard to adventure tourism.”
But Steve Cooke, a local mountaineer and retired mechanical engineer, who helped to compile a previous pre-feasibility study for a similar project more than a decade ago, warned that the cable car was likely to become a “white elephant”.
“People look at the massive revenues from the Table Mountain cable car and think this success can be transposed to the Drakensberg – but… the Table Mountain base station is just 18km away from an international airport in an iconic tourist city of almost 8 million people.
“But in the case of the Berg, the cable station is in a remote rural area at least three hours from Durban and a similar distance from Johannesburg.
“Table Mountain is a flat and pleasant environment at a height of about 1 000m, whereas the top of Berg site is at over 3 000m in a semi-arid, high-mountain environment where the temperatures can drop to -15ºC in winter in the daytime. In the summer you can set your watch by the start of the regular afternoon thunderstorms.”
But Graham Muller, the consultant whose company prepared the latest feasibility study, insisted that poor weather would not derail the feasibility.
He said that around 75 percent of rainfall in the Berg was between noon and midnight, and this meant that mornings were the best times for trips.
Late afternoon thunderstorms tended to be “short and shallow” and while there were generally 137 rain days in Royal Natal National Park each year, most rain fell in the afternoon and would “not interfere with cableway visitor numbers in a significant manner”.
Wilderness Action Group chairman Ilan Lax has expressed “deep concern” about the potential of the project to degrade the wilderness values and sense of peace of the region.
l Copies of the feasibility study are due to be posted on the website of the Department of Economic Development and Tourism this week. - The Mercury
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