The surprise announcement that the province was planning a cable car in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg could take the local tourism industry to new heights.
This was the signal from Economic Development and Tourism MEC, Mike Mabuyakhulu, who unveiled the plan at the Indaba trade show at the weekend and said the project would change the tourism landscape.
Describing the proposed cable car as “a game changer”, Mabuyakhulu told the annual Tourism KZN networking breakfast on Saturday that it would unlock the tourism potential of the region and put the province on the national and international tourism map.
It was one of four tourism products that needed to be developed – he did not name the others – and the plan was to investigate the development of a cableway 3 300m long.
There would be an intermediate station “climbing 1 300m to the summit which will be an elevation of 3 300m above sea level offering expansive views of KZN, Lesotho and the Free State”.
A pre-feasibility study conducted 12 years ago had indicated that benefits of a cable car would include 1 200 jobs and increased opportunities for small and medium-sized entrepreneurs.
It had to offer views of neighbouring Lesotho and the Free State and this would thus enhance regional tourism, said Mabuyakhulu.
A cable car would also serve as a catalytic project to attract more international visitors and “provide a magnet to a host of other experiences and attractions in the area”.
It would boost the competitiveness of KZN as an adventure tourism destination and it would be an alternative “if people do not want to go elsewhere”, he said to laughter, as he referred to the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway in Cape Town.
An advertisement calling for service providers to develop a detailed feasibility study had already been issued by his department, he said.
As the proposed cable car was earmarked for a World Heritage Site, he said it would “enhance the stature of the international asset and will not only profile KZN as a responsible tourism destination with co-existence of environmental management and economic development, but South Africa as well”.
Addressing environmental concerns, he emphasised in a later interview that “we will ensure that we don’t compromise the heritage site”.
It was too soon to say exactly where the cable car would be positioned, but it had to be at a place where there could be development in the Drakensberg, Lesotho and the Free State.
“All three regions have to benefit,” he said, adding that a joint planning committee between the three regions would look at the plan.
Asked who would fund it, he said it would involve government and strategic private partners.
“It is all about increasing our product offering to tourists. It is not just a stand-alone project. It is going to have huge impact on tourism,” he said.
If the project went ahead, he envisaged that tourists who arrived in Durban would be able to take a 30-minute flight to the Drakensberg for a cable car experience.
“I am absolutely excited about it,” he said.
Franz Gmeiner, the Austrian chief executive of the Orion Group, which owns Orion Mont-Aux-Sources in the northern Drakensberg and who knows a thing or two about mountain cable cars, said: “You are talking big money, but I like the idea. It’s fantastic.”
Gmeiner said he felt the best site for a cable car would be at the Amphitheatre region of the Drakensberg.
Kobus van den Berg, chairman of the Southern Drakensberg Community Tourism Organisation, said the only area where tourists would be able to get views all three areas in question was at the Royal National Park, north of the Amphitheatre.
A leading hospitality figure attending the networking breakfast, who did not want to be named, was initially upbeat about the idea, saying that after all the years of people talking about a cable car “they should just get on with it”.
Later, having thought about it, he phoned to say that he did not think it would happen and that it was all “hot air”.
Brett Dungan, the former chief executive of the Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa (Fedhasa) and an outgoing board member of SA Tourism, said that rather than spending money on a cable car, the focus should be on fixing the Oliviers Hoek pass road from Harrismith to Bergville.
The road was so “disgusting” that the Little Switzerland Hotel had had to close down, he said.
Gerhard Patzer, the chairman of the KZN branch of Fedhasa, said:
“The MEC took us by surprise with this announcement of a cable car. I would have thought that there are a lot of other projects that would be more profitable.”