Go big, or go home

2015-04-19 15:00

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The Tourism Indaba is proving to be a great platform for the Lion Park to introduce local and international visitors to some of the world’s biggest cats

As far as the Lion Park in Johannesburg is concerned, when it comes to the Tourism Indaba, there is only one option: go big, or go home.

While sitting in the park’s restaurant this week, the Lion Park’s Shandor Larenty told City Press the park’s presence at the indaba had been an “immense success”.

He said the park had been attending the Tourism Indaba for the past three years, but it decided to invest in more exhibition space last year.

“It brought in a lot of extra business,” he explained. “The more flashy the stand, the better the result.”

Larenty said the Lion Park team at the indaba was running around like mad, handling media interviews with local and foreign media, and facilitating more than 50 meetings with mostly foreign tour operators and tour groups.

He said foreign tour operators were not their only focus. The Tourism Indaba also gave them an opportunity to touch base with local tourism players with whom they already had working relationships and to specifically launch special promotions geared at local partners.

“The Tourism Indaba is important for the South African tourism industry,” said Larenty.

“It allows us to get in touch with our existing client bases and new potential partners so they can see what we have to offer,” he added.

However, said Larenty, when the indaba wrapped up, the hard work was not over.

Last year, the Lion Park hosted 10 to 15 tour companies in the days after the indaba – before their representatives flew out of the country from OR Tambo International Airport – so they could experience it first-hand.

Larenty said the endeavour was such a success that early next month, when Tourism Indaba 2015 kicks off, the Lion Park will have even more exhibition space than it had the year before.

The park was founded by the Chipperfield Circus in 1967 after Jimmy Chipperfield visited South Africa’s Kruger Park and failed to see a single lion.

Larenty says this experience was what fuelled the concept of a lion park where visitors could be guaranteed a lion sighting.

A lion and two lionesses stretch out in the sun at the Lion Park, which is popular for human interactions with lion cubs and cheetah cubs. Pictures: Muntu Vilakazi

At its launch, the park was the second of its kind in South Africa, the first being the Natal Lion Park near Pietermaritzburg, and the third in the world, according to Larenty. The park has changed hands numerous times since then and was bought in the late 1990s by the current owner, Rodney Fuhr.

Larenty credited Fuhr for taking the Lion Park from the tiny park it was then to the thriving enterprise it is today.

In the late 1990s, the park had only two to three guides and catered for just more than 100 cars a day.

Today, it has more than 20 guides, a staff contingent of more than 130 and it caters for more than 600 cars a day.

Larenty explained that foreign tourists were not the park’s main clientele.

More than 60% of their visitors are local tourists, especially after the global economic downturn, as families could no longer afford to go away for holidays and the park offered a great day-trip experience.

In 2012, the park was voted one of the top 100 tourism destinations in the world by Newsweek magazine. In 2010, it was voted Gauteng’s top tourist destination during the soccer World Cup.

Larenty said the World Cup had been a particularly busy time for them, with most staff working 30 to 40 days straight with little time off.

He is also proud of the fact that over the past few years, the park had been recognised with a certificate of excellence by the world’s largest travel website, TripAdvisor.

Larenty mentioned that by the end of this year, the park would have moved from its current 170?hectare site to a new 1?000ha site nearby.

But the park would not be affected during the move and would remain open, he added.

The park houses 75 lions, 11 cheetahs, three giraffes, six meerkats, two spotted hyenas, two striped hyenas and a large variety of buck throughout its two sites.

Visitors can choose between driving their own cars through the park and a guided game drive, which can be a day or night drive.

Another option is the tour with animal behaviourist Alex Larenty, which costs R900 a person.

In addition, there is the option of interacting with lion and cheetah cubs, and the opportunity to go on a walk with lions or cheetahs to experience a more intimate level of interaction.

Often, what tourists are looking for is the perfect photo with their big cat of choice.

It seems the selfie has invaded even the Lion Park.

This the second in a series of five articles written by City Press and sponsored by SA Tourism

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