The proposed building of a new lodge in the far south of the Kruger National Park, the 120-room Malelane Safari Lodge, has caused quite a stir again recently. A recent poll on Tourism Update asked the question – can Kruger sustain another new lodge?
From the perspective of a Kruger safari operator, and looking only at the current accommodation availability in our flagship national park, the answer is a definite yes. We need more accommodation in Kruger. Just recently we lost a group booking of 200 people because there was simply no accommodation available for a group this size, inside or outside Kruger, for the dates we were looking at (in October, outside of school holidays).
I personally don't like large hotels as a base for a safari, but competing destinations like Tanzania's Serengeti National Park have a number of large hotels with 100 rooms or more, and South Africa is losing business and revenue because Kruger cannot easily accommodate large groups like that. In that sense, one can argue that the new proposed lodge meets a definite need.
Even the standard SANParks bungalow accommodation is often fully booked, so that smaller groups can sometimes not be accommodated. We regularly have to turn international guests away although we still have space on our open safari vehicles, simply because there is no extra accommodation available in the relevant rest camp. Filling up empty seats on an existing departure adds no extra congestion to Kruger's roads. But SANParks as well as the operator lose valuable revenue by not being able to accommodate such guests.
Balancing this perspective is the very real concern regarding congestion and overcrowding in Kruger, particularly in the south and during peak periods. This does impact the environment. Tourism has a visibly greater impact in Kruger during peak periods when the park is full to capacity (particularly during the school holidays, Christmas time and Easter, when there are many day visitors as well). Littering is more common, more animals are killed by speeding vehicles or fed by ignorant tourists, more people get out of their vehicles or decide to drive off-road to get closer to a sighting. Blatant rule-breaking is more common during peak periods. Road rage or verbal abuse at congested sightings is unfortunately quite common. Picnic sites and hides such as Lake Panic, Afsaal, Nkuhlu and Tshokwane are sometimes completely congested, far beyond capacity.
But these problems can all be managed – they have solutions. Already with the growth of social media (although connectivity and technology can bring challenges of their own) we have seen a growing effort among Kruger regulars to help enforce the park rules by simply photographing and reporting incidents of unlawful conduct, allowing the authorities to follow up. And we will get to suggestions that can ease congestion.
Congestion in Kruger is one of the main concerns that has been raised in opposition to the proposed new lodge, along with concerns about the environmental impact of the new lodge, traffic through Malelane gate, and the possible negative impact on existing, competing businesses and nearby lodges.
As a tour operator, there is no doubt in my mind that we need increased capacity for tourists and locals alike to be able to enjoy our national parks. But an increase in accommodation needs to go hand in hand with growth in facilities that will help ease congestion. I have often expressed the wish that SANParks would invest in building more roads in the south of the park to ease congestion on existing routes. To minimise impact, they could start by converting some existing no-entry roads and firebreaks into tourist roads. Another way to ease congestion is by building more alighting points (picnic sites, view points and game viewing hides). This will result in fewer vehicles on the roads, more places where people can get out of their vehicle and stretch their legs, and additional picnic sites will alleviate the pressure on existing, overcrowded picnic sites.
A further investment which has already borne much fruit, is the partnership between SANParks and private safari operators through the SATSA self-regulation project, launched at Indaba in 2015. Open safari vehicles are now much better regulated and guides have attended training to ensure certain minimum standards are met. Since open safari vehicles typically seat nine guests per vehicle, they result in less congestion than smaller private vehicles and rental cars.
During my university studies we looked at carrying capacity of a game reserve or national park, referring to the number of animals of each species that the ecosystem could sustain. But what is the carrying capacity of a national park with regard to tourists, number of beds and number of vehicles? How does one calculate it? What is the upper limit? Do we try and maximise the tourist capacity of Kruger, knowing that each tourist brings in revenue that can benefit conservation efforts? Or do we stick to a low-volume, low-impact policy (as Botswana has done) at the risk of making our national parks too expensive for the average citizen to visit, and perhaps excluding many from the privilege of experiencing Kruger? Since Kruger is our flagship national park and one of our country's main tourist attractions, should we not find ways to allow as many tourists as possible to experience Kruger, knowing they will also visit other parts of South Africa and boost the national economy with their tourism spend?
The debate about the impact of the new Malelane Safari Lodge will probably continue for some time. But from my perspective as a tour operator who is often unable to find accommodation in Kruger for international clients, the need for more lodging seems obvious – provided it goes hand in hand with measures to combat congestion and minimise the environmental impact of the new development.