This blog post is a little different because we have Niki Moore as a guest blogger…
Oh dear. Here’s another one of those seemingly unwinnable arguments over the integrity of our tourist attractions, with each side talking right past the other, and each coming from a mutually-exclusive point of view.
The latest brou-haha concerns plans by SANParks to build one, or maybe two, or may be a whole lot, of five-star hotels with conference facilities in the Kruger National Park. They won’t be building it themselves, mind, they are going into partnership with Radisson Blu. One hotel is planned for the Malelane area of the park, and the second in the Skukuza system. These are areas right within the park. They are scheduled to open in 2013.
Let’s begin this debate by looking at the facts.
According to laws governing national parks worldwide, this kind of development simply cannot take place. Therefore in order for the planned hotels to proceed, Kruger will have to be downgraded in the same way that Yellowstone Park in the US is facing a downgrade over excessive development. If the hotel developments go ahead, Kruger will stop being a national park.
Secondly, apart from laws, guidelines and international classifications, conventional conservation wisdom has accepted that the best development model for any protected area or biosphere would be a core area of complete wilderness. Around this, in various zones on the border of the wilderness, would be areas of high-impact development, middle-impact development, and low-impact development. The best example of this is Pilanesberg Game Reserve. The reason for peripheral development is because rural communities can have a large say in – and even ownership of – the adjacent hotels. Staff accommodation, roads and support infrastructure can also be situated outside the park, making no impact on the wilderness inside. Since around 1957, this has been regarded as best practice.
Thirdly, with hotels facing hard times all over the world and the conference industry being particularly hard hit – is this is the right time to be building new hotels and conference facilities?
Conservationists who oppose the hotel developments point out that an environmental impact assessment was only begun six months after the hotels were approved. This indicates that the park management is determined to build hotels, no matter what. Fiona McLeod, an excellent investigative journalist with the Mail and Guardian, pointed out in an article that the chairman of the board of SANParks has a vested interest in the Radisson parent company. Many journalists who have asked questions about the development have been put off and the crucial questions, such as ‘Will the law be changed and Kruger downgraded?’, ‘Has a consultation process been undertaken?’ and ‘Are these hotels going to be viable?’ have not been answered.
Instead, the debate has degenerated into a name-calling us-and-them exercise, which has obscured the real issue and – most unfortunately – made the whole thing appear as an old-guard-white-preservationist-anti-transformation brigade versus the meeting-the-aspirations-of-disadvantaged-poor-blacks new order.
Salomon Joubert, an ex-Kruger warden, started the whole thing off on the wrong foot by defending the spiritual nature of wilderness, saying that conserving pristine wilderness created a sanctuary that was part of the needs of man, and that this was one of the founding philosophies of the park according to Prime Minister-at-the-time Jan Smuts and Kruger’s first chief ranger Hamilton-Stevens. Kruger CEO David Mabunda replied sniffily to this that the 3 million poor blacks living on the borders of the park don’t give a fig about old-white-men Smuts and Hamilton-Stevens’ spiritual well-being. (I’m paraphrasing, of course…)
And unfortunately the debate went down from there.
Both sides are wrong, of course. The old purist ideology of pristine wilderness has long fled from Kruger Park, with its tarred roads and speed traps, bustling rest camps and huge tourist trucks. However, the brand of Kruger as a tourist icon is still priceless and should be preserved – especially in view of the fact that a multi-billion rand safari industry has sprung up on its borders through privately-owned parks and lodges.
No-one can, or should, sit on the fence on this issue. It does appear as if the plan to build the hotels is fatally flawed and might be the thin end of the wedge that finishes off Kruger, but as the SANParks board refuses to answer questions it is hard to get to the real story. And as long as the issue stays at the ‘haves-vs-have-nots’ level, it can only have an unhappy ending for all.
So perhaps one can finish off by saying – ‘Well, what can I do? I’m just an ordinary oik with no real influence over development or not in the Kruger Park.’
This is wrong – citizen activism has the potential to do great things. People in the hotel industry can express their displeasure towards Radisson Blu; people in the tourist industry can mobilise against supporting the project until questions are answered.
At the very least we need to know whether the iconic Kruger National Park is about to lose its National Park status to accommodate a few badly-conceived hotels. We need some transparency on this issue – Kruger does, after all, belong to every single South African citizen for now and (most importantly) for the future.
This article by Niki Moore is reprinted with kind permission of Tourism Update