Real issues are ignored in Kruger Park row

It is a pity that the response from the chief executive of South African National Parks (SANParks), David Mabunda, to an unbecomingly racist letter in the local press led to the Mail & Guardian article “Kruger row becomes ‘racist game’” (July 1). The article left the impression that Mabunda was using a racial argument to skirt the real issues.

He was responding to letters and other comments in forums such as Facebook, like that from “Leon of Nelspruit”, who wrote that the proposed developments in the Kruger National Park would attract “black diamonds” and asked: “Are these people going to be happy to sit in the hotel after sunset and listen to the sounds of the African bush? Before long there will be in-house entertainment, a nightclub and then a casino to keep the money moving —”

A robust debate on proposed safari hotels was thus spun into a cesspool of racial attacks. The broader and more important debate is about whether hotels have a place in a national park.
I say yes, unequivocally.

The implication that hotels in the parks would have casinos, nightclubs or ladies of the night are unfounded. We chose the term “hotel” because of the type of service we want to ­provide to our visitors: a full hotel service for those who do not want to cook or worry about monkeys stealing their food, or for nature lovers looking for a comfortable, even luxurious stay, at a good price.

There has been much song and dance about the south of the park being overcrowded. Really? On what empirical evidence has this conclusion been reached? I suggest that the perception of overcrowding is based instead on a visual experience on some of the most popular roads in the park on busier days.

It is important to note that tourism, even in protected areas, remains a business and not a public service. Granted, tourism in parks started as a means to create access for people not working in parks, but decreasing government grants have meant that it has become a vital source of revenue for parks around the globe. It would thus make sense that when business opportunities present themselves an organisation such as SANParks should explore them while staying within the tenets of its mandate.

The truth is that tourism facility development in national parks has never been without vociferous objection, yet none of the claims of doom and destruction has been realised, despite all the energy expended fighting over them.

The decision by SANParks to develop facilities that, we believe, would attract black people is a good business decision that should be applauded rather than jeered. It shows visionary thinking for potential business growth.

Notwithstanding the fact that more than 80% of visitors to national parks are domestic tourists, and that fewer than 10% of those are black visitors staying overnight, it is an indictment of SANParks that, 17 years into our free nation, we have not managed to attract more interest from this majority section of our society.

There is nothing wrong ethically, morally, legally or even in business terms in SANParks developing facilities to attract a growing market segment. It is disingenuous for people who claim to have been visiting the parks for years to claim that, by developing more facilities to attract other visitors, SANParks is shirking its duties and flouting its conservation mandate.

This government, which, according to some, does not care about conserving our natural heritage, has since 1994 added about one-million hectares of land to the national parks, a phenomenal achievement when compared with the record of the previous 68 years since national parks were first proclaimed in 1926, which created national parks spanning more than three-million hectares National parks are managed for a range of impacts and we should approach tourism in the same way that we approach wildlife management.

There are bigger threats to our natural heritage than a measly 400 beds in a park big enough to dwarf a number of countries in the world.

Wanda Mkutshulwa is SANParks’s head of communications

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