Not equipped to deal with ecotourism

2013-03-20 00:00

EZEMVELO KZN Wildlife is an entity formed by the merger of the former Natal Parks Board and the former KwaZulu Directorate of Nature Conservation, through the promulgation of the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Management Act of 1997.

According to the act, the KwaZulu-Natal Conservation Board, now known as Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, has three primary functions, which are to manage the following directly: nature conservation within the province of KwaZulu-Natal, protected areas, and the development and promotion of ecotourism within protected areas.

It can be argued that Ezemvelo has failed to fulfil its ecotourism function, thereby hampering economic development in the province, despite the province being endowed with abundant ecotourism resources.

There is no doubt that tourism enterprises based on Africa’s natural resources are key drivers of development. It was certainly out of this understanding that we, as representatives in the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature, crafted and implemented the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Management Act, and delegated this function to Ezemvelo.

The expectation was that Ezemvelo, over and above its other functions, would use eco-tourism as an important driver of development in this province, especially in remote and rural areas with few economic opportunities. However, since Ezemvelo’s formation, ecotourism has dwindled.

Despite receiving a budget allocation of approximately R600 million each year, Ezemvelo has failed to trigger economic development worthy of such a budget allocation. Instead, the organisation has been dogged by allegations of corruption and mismanagement, recurring irregular expenditure, improper asset management, an inability to curb increasing rhino and other poaching, deteriorating ecotourism facilities, crippling skills shortages and bloated salary payments — with the body’s CEO, Bandile Mkhize, earning R1,2 million this past year.

As a result, ecotourism has been severely affected. Site visits conducted by the Democratic Alliance in the latter part of last year to several game reserves managed by Ezemvelo reveal a worrying state of affairs. A number of resorts appeared to be neglected, had low occupancy rates caused, in part, by ineffective marketing techniques and an incompetent central reservations office. Roofs were leaking and community reserves enjoying Ezemvelo’s support lay dilapidated.

This is hardly surprising. While the crafters of the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Management Act did so in good faith, it was perhaps an error in judgment to assign ecotourism to Ezemvelo. The body’s primary function ought to be the protection of biodiversity resources in KwaZulu-Natal, and not hospitality or ecotourism. To expect a conservation management entity to run game reserves and resorts requiring a profit-driven management style is bound to fail. The two are incompatible.

As such, the DA believes that there should be amendments to the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Management Act, allowing for ecotourism to be privatised. It is the only way that struggling resorts under Ezemvelo’s management can be rehabilitated back to profitability; the only way that province-wide economic growth and development can be realised.

Naturally, with privatisation come some concerns — the same worries that most detractors point to whenever privatisation is raised as a solution. It is a well-known fact that the rural poor already benefit from the existence of private lodges, resorts and game reserves in the communities — mostly as sellers of their labour to such establishments. It is also true that the local poor providing mostly unskilled labour lose out on the benefits of tourism — with external interests typically capturing a large proportion of the benefits generated by the tourism market — thereby doing little to support social and economic advancement in the remote rural areas where the tourism destinations are located.

The DA understands that simply promoting ecotourism in underdeveloped settings is clearly not a guarantee of sustainable advances for the poor and disadvantaged of such regions. As such, any legislative amendments and policy proposals made in this regard have to be consistent with the notion of inclusive growth and the local poor benefiting from such growth.

• Johann Krog is a veteran politician and a DA member of the KwaZulu-Natal Finance and Economic Development and Tourism portfolio committees.

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