From SOS to VIP

As South Africa braces for a surge in foreign visitors during the Fifa World Cup, an Mpumalanga dorpie is showing the national authorities how to soothe the frazzled nerves of tourists hit by crime.

The newly opened Highveld Visitors Centre, in the centre of Ermelo, not only caters for foreigners on the lookout for Highveld tourist offerings — it also boasts a VIP lounge for “tourists in distress”.

The novel idea struck Athol Stark, the coordinator for the burgeoning tourism industry in the Highveld region, when a distraught British couple wandered into the centre’s reception area after losing their backpack, and with it passports and wads of cash.

Stark, a heavily built, affable man with a reddish moustache, ushered the couple — Steven and Karen Mitchell — into the upstairs VIP lounge. After quizzing them in a bid to retrace their steps, Stark immediately dispatched one of his staff members to arrange for the police to speak to them in the non-threatening lounge area.

The staffer was instructed to be at the Mitchells’ side at all times to build a rapport and mutual trust, in a kind of buddy system.

Meanwhile, Stark dashed off a call to the Hazyview restaurant the couple had last used and in Sherlock Holmes fashion traced the backpack and made arrangements for it to be couriered to Ermelo.

The Mitchells were told that their backpack would be delivered the next day and were booked into a nearby guesthouse for the night while they waited. The next day they opened their pack to find all their valuables in place.

The power of the interaction, Stark told the Mail & Guardian, stayed in his memory and served as a model.

A modest yet comfortable lounge serves as a neutral area for tourists who have been through a trauma such as being robbed, allowing them to compose themselves while the police deal with them.

Borrowing a well-known Disney World customer service principle, the visitors’ centre assigns a staff member to the “tourist in distress” from the moment he or she arrives until the resolution of the complaint by the police or a government department such as home affairs.

“This is an innovation and a definite first for Mpumalanga,” said Stark.

The centre, he said, has already assisted tourists from France, Canada and the United Kingdom, sweetening what could have otherwise been sour perceptions of the country.

Stark, who works as the centre’s chief executive on a voluntary basis, pointed to another incident that cost the centre close to R20 000, involving French tourists who had been in a car accident.

One of the visitors, unable to move because of a back injury, was put up in a guesthouse for six weeks. They later wrote to their embassy praising the centre’s efforts.

Stark said that the centre works very closely with the police and that he sits on the police forum for the area. All the documentation needed by police to deal with a particular case is stored in the VIP lounge for ease of access.

The centre has also used the services of local translators to help traumatised tourists.

The private tourism sector and local business people in the area had identified the need for the visitors centre in the run-up to the World Cup this winter, Stark said.

Although the private tourism sector works closely with the government and has even signed a memorandum of understanding with the provincial tourism body, the centre is 100% privately funded.

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