Lowering Durban’s flags

2008-07-11 00:00

South Africa’s blue flag beach score is Cape Town 8, Durban 0. But although the eThekwini Municipality yesterday officially withdrew from the programme, Umhlanga is not going down without a fight.

Theirs is the only blue flag left standing in what tourism bosses believe has degenerated into a stand-off that could cost KwaZulu-Natal the biggest slice of the multi-billion-rand national domestic tourism pie.

Alison Kelly is the local organiser of the international Blue Flag programme owned and run by non-profit organisation Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) in Copenhagen. She confirmed yesterday that applications for 26 full status blue flag beaches have been received.

Only five are in KZN — four on the upper south or Hibiscus Coast and one in Richards Bay.

In contrast, Kelly said, Cape Town applied for eight beaches to belong to the scheme, while Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality has applied for five.

Applications for seven pilot blue flag beaches (those striving to meet the criteria for full status a year later) have been received and more are expected. Two are on the Hibiscus Coast.

Worldwide, 2 585 beaches and 614 marinas in 31 countries have blue flag status because they meet international safety, amenity, cleanliness and environmental standards.

At the end of last year, six of them were in Durban with a further four pilot beaches. Since then, five of the six blue flags have been lowered and the last one, Umhlanga main beach, will be forced to remove its flag at the end of October.

Umdloti Beach, which would have easily converted to a full status beach this year, will also have to abandon its quest in October.

“We must never lose sight of the fact that water quality is the real issue,” said Kelly.

Umhlanga’s main beach still meets all the blue flag criteria.

In June, independent tests revealed that water quality off Durban remained poor. Bacteria counts were between 25 and 30 times above levels specified in South African water quality standards.

Durban’s water quality has been deteriorating steadily over the seven years that Blue Flag tested it monthly. The biggest deterioration was over the past three years.

Locals along the north coast believe they are being punished for the eThekwini Municipality’s inability to restore suitable water quality to Durban and for the rift between municipal manager Dr Michael Sutcliffe and the Blue Flag organisation.

After calling for Kelly’s head and declaring that water quality tests were inaccurate, Sutcliffe announced that Durban will put in place its own system and measure water quality internally.

Umhlanga tourism bosses were told categorically, at a turbulent emergency meeting of the Durban Chamber of Commerce standing tourism committee meeting on Monday, that there would be no change of mind.

Said Ron Klambt, chairman of the Umhlanga Promenade Urban Improvement Precinct (UIP): “We are outraged by the bullyboy tactics being used by the council. The crazy thing is that we are almost powerless. We have lobbied to just be able to plead with local government, but they are … not interested in listening to stakeholders. Every race group is affected by dirty water.

Cleanliness has nothing to do with being elitist [as the municipality often calls Umhlanga]. Clean water is a fundamental right for rich and poor alike.”

UIP is paying for the water testing that enables Umhlanga to keep its tentative grip on its blue flag. It also offered to fund an independent application for a blue flag. But Kelly said international rules require the application to be made by a municipality.

The fallout from the loss of blue flag status and its value as a marketing tool could be immense.

Kelly said a study of Margate’s blue flag status by the CSIR in 2004/5 four years ago estimated the value of either attracting or turning away tourists at between R19 million and R24 million.

Multiplying this by 10 Durban beaches suggests the loss to Durban could be far greater.

However, Margate and Gonube (East London) rapidly restored the blue flags they had lost to dirty water in 2006 and 2007.

Tourism KwaZulu-Natal chief executive Ndabo Khoza said his organisation “does not want the impression to be created that the province does not have any blue flag beaches. We have 600 km of coastline of which Durban makes up just 120 km. Other municipalities with beautiful beaches participate in the blue flag initiative and have overcome the challenges. There is also scope for other district municipalities to participate and the matter of blue flag status is being discussed at provincial tourism co-ordinating forums.”

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