Lodges along KZN’s Battlefields Route ‘living in hope’

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Isandlwana Lodge, near Nqutu in Northern KwaZulu-Natal.
Isandlwana Lodge, near Nqutu in Northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Tourism businesses on the Battlefields Route in KwaZulu-Natal are “living in hope” that international tourists will soon be back.

It comes as operators in the region estimate R142 million was lost to Dundee and the surrounding areas during the five months of the hard lockdown last year.

Hotels, lodges and community tourism hubs — which rely heavily on visitors from Britain, the United States, Australia and New Zealand — are closing or on the verge of collapse.

Shane Evans, manager of Isandlwana Lodge near Nqutu in northern KwaZulu-Natal, said they had been forced to close their doors for most of last year; and plans to reopen on January 4 had to be changed after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the move to level three in late December.

Pam McFadden, curator of the Talana Museum and chairperson of the Battlefields Route KZN and the KZN Tour Guides Association, said that in the two months before the lockdown 4 522 people had visited the area. From the end of March to September, however, there was not a single visitor.

“I still have all my overheads to pay, like insurance and electricity and staff salaries, but right now no-one has a definitive idea about what is going to happen in the next six months.”
Isandlwana Lodge manager Shane Evans

“Visitors to the sites since then are a rare occurrence, with very low hundreds visiting Talana Museum and that mainly as a result of historical and cultural functions,” McFadden said. “Most of our major fund-raising events had to be cancelled, impacting severely on our income.”

Statistics compiled by Tourism Dundee reveal that the average tourist bus, which overnights in Dundee, will generate between R80 000 and R90 000 in terms of spend for accommodation, food and restaurants, fuel, souvenirs, and museum entry fees.

Supermarkets, hardware stores, furniture outlets, stationery shops, repair and maintenance firms, doctors, chemists, tyre companies, filling stations and other businesses benefit as a result.

McFadden said the loss of visitors, especially those from overseas, has already resulted in some large accommodation establishments closing down and others operating at minimum staffing levels.

She added that in recent months at least 157 people in the sector have been retrenched — a threat facing the 180 people employed at Isandlwana Lodge.

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Evans said he had been lucky enough to get TERS payments, but with doubts about whether or not the government will extend the scheme, he’s worried he might have reduce staff.

“I still have all my overheads to pay, like insurance and electricity and staff salaries, but right now no-one has a definitive idea about what is going to happen in the next six months,” he added.

“Most people around here have been banking on the Lions Rugby Tour [in June, July and August] for bookings, but, because of Covid, there are rumours that the tour will be put back to September.”

Fewer international tourists has also had a huge impact on the community living near Isandlwana hill and Rorke’s Drift — two of the most famous battle sites of the Anglo-Zulu War.

Evans said that one of his freelance guides, Paul Garner, had only done two tours in the last month.

“The guides are not managing,” he added. “Most of my guides are retired gentlemen and they are being forced to use their retirement savings to survive.”

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According to McFadden, most guides normally have 20 days of tourism work a month, but in the past nine months they have been averaging three days.

Residents of the village adjacent to Isa­ndlawana Lodge, which relies on community tourism to supplement people’s incomes, have also been affected.

Normally tourists pay villagers to get a taste of life in a traditional rural home, but most are now having to rely on grant money to survive.

Communities have also lost out from income generated by the entrance fees to the battlefield sites, 20% of which is usually ploughed back into community projects. These include drilling of boreholes, building of community halls and assisting with education projects.

“Everything has come to a halt,” Evans said, “even the shebeen has closed; and, with schools due to reopen, people will be under even more pressure with having to buy school uniforms and books.”

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