Africa

Swazi tourism looks to the future

James Hall

Swazis tired of hearing their country condemned for having a traditional African monarchy for its governing system are countering that this very culture makes Swaziland a unique place any tourist would want to visit. Swaziland's new tourism board wants to reverse the declining fortunes of the national tourism industry.

Swazis tired of hearing their country condemned for having a traditional African monarchy for its governing system are countering that this very culture makes Swaziland a unique place any tourist would want to visit.

“We are a special place, a beautiful place, and I believe we will get this message to international visitors,” said Poppy Khoza, CEO of the Swaziland Tourism Board.

The last sub-Saharan African country to be ruled by a king used to draw tourists for that very reason. The new tourism board, in existence for only a year now, wants to rekindle the old magic, and reverse the declining fortunes of the national tourism industry.

“Swaziland was well positioned in the 1960s through the 1990s because there was no war here. In South Africa, there were international sanctions because of apartheid. In Mozambique there was civil war. Now there is peace in those countries, thankfully, and tourists have other places to go,” Khoza said at a workshop this week held to come up with a logo to identify Swazi curios and other products.

In its latest survey of the economy, the Central Bank of Swaziland said: “The local tourism industry experienced a remarkably strong growth under difficult circumstances last year. After declining 10%, international business grew 4,2%.”

Oversees interest in Swaziland increased sharply with tourists from Belgium, Germany and France visiting the country, the bank reported.

However, many visitors are simply passing through the small landlocked kingdom going to and from South Africa and Mozambique. If they bed down at all, it is for a single night. That seems enough for some tourists over the Easter weekend, the second-busiest tourism time of the year.

The tourists said most Swazi sights can be seen in one day—from the game parks of Hlane, Mkhaya or Malolotja to the popular hotels of the Ezulwini Valley outside Mbabane, the capital.

The tourism industry measure for sales, the number of bed nights sold, increased by 5% last year. Growth in bed nights sold could have been higher had it not been for the temporary closure of the Protea Hotel at Piggs Peak last August. Operations resumed in November under new management, but so small is the formal tourism sector that the temporary closure of one hotel could negatively impact yearly figures. Nevertheless, tourism receipts increased by 14% last year, to R220-million.

It is difficult to ascertain how much tourism contributes to the Swazi economy, because the Central Bank lumps tourism receipts along with all wholesale and retail businesses, as well as restaurants. (Percentage of gross domestic product for all these businesses was only 5% last year.)

It is also hard to separate statistically visitors from tourists.

Industry sources said most visitors are from South Africa, whose numbers remain consistent as visitors from other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries fall off because of economic downturns in their respective economies.

Many arrive on business, accomplish what they want to do at, say, a Swaziland branch of a South African firm, and turn around to pass through the border by night without having purchased a hotel bed.

“Day trippers, we call them. We want tourists who will spend the night, shop, and see the sights,” tour operator Jabulani Tsabedze said.

Tsabedze specialises in adventure tourism, a growing niche that draws younger travellers who yearn to rock climb, white-water raft, hike and explore caves (preferably ones decorated with ancient San drawings). This group does not mind roughing it in the wild, and sees no allure visiting a casino or lounging by a hotel pool.

“Trouble is, they don’t spend much money. On the other hand, they are giving a boost to community tourism projects because they enjoy our local culture,” said an official with the Tourism Ministry.

The main royal celebrations—the Incwala Kingship festival around Christmas and the maidens’ Reed Dance in early September—are being mined for their tourism potential, without compromising the sacred nature of the Incwala or the maidens’ earnest devotion to the Queen Mother displayed during the Reed Dance.

Only a few thousand visitors can be accommodated for either event, which makes fortunate their almost surprise scheduling. To the consternation of the tourism industry, royal officials will only announce the dates of these events a few days in advance.

A rule of thumb is that the Big Incwala, a national holiday in Swaziland when thousands of warriors and Swazis in traditional attire perform the kingship dance at the main cattle byre at Ludzidzini royal residence, falls three days following the first full moon to rise after the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice on December 22.

But there are thousands of pageants and celebrations that occur in communities throughout Swaziland, when young men and maidens perform the high-kicking sibhacca dance. Combine it with traditional shelters like the Swazi beehive hut, a feast of traditional dishes, some native game roaming the veld and proximity to a traditional Swazi homestead, and the ingredients are in place for the type of authentic African experience that whets visitors’ appetites and which Swaziland can provide.

Shewula Game Park in the eastern lowveld is an example of a community-based tourism initiative that offers visitors just such an experience.

“The short-term outlook for tourism is uncertain. There have been a number of worrying developments that may hamper growth,” fretted the Central Bank. The rand’s strong showing against major currencies since the beginning of 2003 has made Swaziland twice as expensive as it was two years ago, “threatening to undermine the country’s status as an affordable, good-value destination”.

Swaziland tourism officials said the kingdom’s peaceful and secure environment, added to beautiful and varied ecosystems compacted into a small space, is good value for the money. This week, the newspapers ran a front-page story of a Swazi tourist who ventured over the border into the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, only to have the family car riddled with bullets from would-be hijackers.

“It has never happened that a tourist in Swaziland has been shot at. That security sort of defines who we are, and why others should come to enjoy the experience of tranquillity we offer,” said tour guide Tsabedze.—IPS

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