By Tsitsi Matope
MASERU — It should take less than one hour to drive from Ramatseliso’s Gate Border Crossing to the Sehlabathebe National Park, but this is made difficult because of the bad state of the road.
Traversing the rocky thoroughfare linking the two locations situated 50 kilometres apart in Qacha’s Nek District can be an ordeal tourists with small vehicles would rather avoid.
And the same applies to the major road linking the town of Qacha’s Nek and the World Heritage Site, Sehlabathebe National Park, situated about 120 kilometres from the town.
“For now, this is not a road for any other type of car but a proper 4×4 in very good condition. The absence of a good road can indeed, limit the number of tourists who visit the beautiful and serene park,” said the managing director of Khali Hotel and Hills View Guest House, Marotholi Khali, in an interview this week.
“Poor roads can also affect the viability of the hospitality industry in such areas and hinder further development of other accommodation facilities in areas that have bad gravel roads,” Khali further stated.
“What we also have to understand are the effects of less tourists on the sustainability of these facilities and also how this reduces benefits that local communities are supposed to derive.
“Community benefits are determined by, among other factors, the number of tourists received.”
Khali, who has businesses in the hospitality and construction sectors, last year won a concession to operate the newly-established Sehlabathebe National Heritage Centre in partnership with the South African-based Zambezi-Kanyemba Safaris.
Facing the imposing mountains right inside the mega park, the amazingly beautiful Centre is set to provide 40 single-bed and one queen-sized-bed accommodation and conference facilities, when it eventually opens for business.
“We are expecting to start operating the Centre before winter and already we have some tourists calling us to make enquiries about the facility and its accessibility. There is a lot of potential in the area if the issues around accessibility are tackled.”
He said although the government improved the gravel road last year, its further upgrading by way of tarring it is needed if Sehlabathebe is to attract more tourists, including those who drive smaller vehicles.
“We are optimistic that if the road infrastructure concern is worked on and maybe other means that could ease the transportation issue are implemented, we would be able to increase the number of people who seek accommodation services at the Centre.
“We are targeting both local and foreign tourists, students and researchers on educational trips and others who would just like to get away and get lost in the park,” Khali said.
He added operations at the Centre will create employment for local communities, support their various cultural activities such as dances and also provide a market for local farmers.
However, Khali explained despite current road concerns, there are indications the Ministry of Public Works and Transport would soon start tarring the Sehlabathebe road.
Khali said while the involvement of the private sector in infrastructure development would help to accelerate the pace, such major projects do not come cheap.
“I think it would help if the private sector and, in particular, those in the tourism and hospitality industry could cooperate with the government.
“The government, private sector and local communities stand to benefit a lot from good accessibility.
“Good roads, for example, can lure more investment in remote areas, some of which are also top tourist destinations.
“However, this is an initiative that would demand a well-organised private sector effort to pool resources together and implement such programmes collectively.”
Khali, however, said the challenge lay in the fact that not all hospitality businesses are making good profits that would enable meaningful contribution towards the development of various infrastructures.
“On our part, we already have a lot on our hands as far as improving various areas of the park is concerned.”
Khali and the Zambezi-Kanyemba Safaris would soon improve the main entrance area of the park in order to beautify it and also help visitors become aware they are now in the conservation area.
Other improvements would include signage and revamping of the existing welcome centre where visitors would be expected to pay an admission-fee and also buy locally-made crafts.
Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC) chief executive officer, Mpaiphele Maqutu, said both the government and private sector understood the need to make all tourist attractions easily accessible.
However, Maqutu pointed to the country’s topography, which he highlighted presented immense challenges in attaining this goal.
“Comprehensive ease of access demands mega and transformational development projects that can provide alternative means of transportation by air, rail and tarred roads.
“At the moment, government is focusing on improving the country’s road network as a way of stimulating economic growth.
“However, our uniquely challenging mountainous topography, which is more pronounced in the highlands, makes investing in various developments costly compared to the situation in the other parts of the lowlands,” Maqutu said.
He further said although a lot of work still needs to be done if the country is to come up with a top-class tourism sector, government is showing commitment amid trying economic times.
The need to strike a balance in the allocation of resources, and in particular, with the more pressing social and health demands begs the question of whether it would make sense to prioritise developments that would create a competitive tourism sector or put the development of other sectors first, Maqutu said.
Maqutu also said together with the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture, they continue to mobilise more resources for the development of the infrastructure that can help boost tourism.
“We would like to ensure our country’s landscape does not become a barrier to a tourism boon. While it is important to also prioritise other sectors, we are saying a vibrant tourism sector can generate enough resources to further improve other sectors.
“Tourism is about job-creation and attracting more investment, poverty-alleviation, the boosting of other sectors such as transport, water, energy and agriculture while the real issue is the preservation of all our natural resources, which formulate the well-being of all ecosystems.
“I am convinced it makes real sense to invest more in the development of the tourism sector,” Maqutu said.
It is against this background that Maqutu said the Ministry of Development Planning requested the resuscitation of an Inter-Ministerial platform where the Ministry of Tourism can participate and help influence the prioritisation of certain programmes, among them, tourism infrastructure development.
Maqutu said while more improvement was needed, government was not turning a blind eye to the need to develop road networks that lead to all top tourist destinations.
“We are seeing roads currently being constructed from Semonkong through to Qacha’s Nek and Mokhotlong to Sani Pass.
“The Semonkong road is a major infrastructure development project that is bound to unlock immense tourism potential in the central highlands of Lesotho.
“The road from Mokhotlong to Sani Pass will make it easier for our much-needed tourists to easily access the remote areas,” Maqutu said.
He commended priority currently being given to the development of border posts such as Butha-Buthe, which is a major port of entry from a tourism point of view.
“We are also excited to know that plans are at an advanced stage to upgrade the Moshoeshoe I International Airport.
“As a tourism development corporation, we value high standards at all our ports of entry and this is because we understand the importance of a good first impression on the sector.”
The facelift at the international airport, Maqutu said, would also help increase chances of having other commercial airlines flying into Lesotho.
“Having major airlines coming to Lesotho would also mean the much needed tourist traffic.”
Maqutu further said the need to develop infrastructure also stretches to other facets such as potable water, electricity, telephone lines, radio and television signals, mobile networks and accommodation.
Accommodation is not enough in the remote highlands, which also happens to be much sought after by tourists.
Some tourists who visit the Qacha’s Nek and Mokhotlong areas, for example, leave to spend their nights in South Africa, thereby depriving the country of much-needed revenue.
“While we would expect the private sector to tap into this tourism component, government is not sitting back to wait for them to come to the party. As we speak, government is in the process of developing world-class accommodation facilities at the Bokong Nature Reserve.
“The second phase of this development has been approved in the upcoming fiscal budget cycle.”
Other accommodation developments, some of which are to be graded soon, are Thaba Chitja chalets in Mohale, Molimo Nthuse Lodge in Setibing, Sehlabathebe National Heritage Centre, Liphofung Chalets and Mohale Chalets.
“Because the tourism sector continues to change while, at the same time, we see more tourists becoming sophisticated in their needs and expectations, we are also in the process of introducing technologies such as wi-fi internet in all our accommodation facilities.
“The newly-constructed Butha-Buthe Information Centre will house a top-class restaurant, curio and craft shops, internet, restrooms and other modern features.
“We are also placing more emphasis on the star-grading of all accommodation facilities to maintain high standards,” Maqutu said.
He added that all facilities established by the government needed the private sector to operate them through a Public Private Partnership arrangement.
“The ball is now in their court and how they are going to play it can make or break the country’s tourism and hospitality business.
“If the private sector chooses to become mere moaning spectators, there is a danger that some foreign investors, who are welcome, can play the ball and win the game.”