‘Good governance critical to tourism growth’
LESOTHO is endowed with some of Africa’s most intriguing tourism products that have the potential to spur economic growth and bring much-needed development to the country. Tourism does not only add colour, vibrancy and excitement to the profile of a country that possesses deeper understanding of its importance, it also builds a positive image of developing countries to help attract diverse investment.
Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC) Chief Executive Officer, Mpaiphele Maqutu (MM), recently spoke with the Lesotho Times (LT) about the strategic plan the parastatal has developed to unlock the country’s tourism potential. Below are excerpts of the interview.
LT: In the four years you have been at the helm of the LTDC, what would you say has been your major development focus?
MM: When I joined the LTDC, the main objective was to ensure the corporation works towards increasing tourist arrivals through various activities including improving the quality of tourism products and services. At the time, the figures reflected slightly under a million visitors per year. Increasing the number of visitors was a priority area for the government, hence we factored this objective in our five-year Strategic Plan. Importantly, the LTDC felt it was prudent to design programmes that are informed by empirical knowledge. That is to say, through collaboration with South Africa, we formulated a credible baseline on arrival statistics which we have been building upon.
LT: Lesotho was rocked by political and security instability a few months after you were appointed CEO. Would you say the corporation has achieved the tourist arrival numbers you were targeting in light of these developments?
MM: It is a fact that for significant tourism growth to be achieved, there is need for good governance that will promote peace and ensure that Lesotho has strong institutions that also support economic diversification, including the development of the tourism sector. The political and security situation affected the tourism sector but we are beginning to see some positive changes following government’s commitment to addressing the security situation. In the long-term, this will positively impact on the tourism sector.
However, despite the challenges, we have achieved some growth in the number of arrivals, recording slightly above 1.1 million tourists in 2015. This figure increased to 1.196 million arrivals in 2016. This is quite significant if you look at the industry growth percentage norm based on what is happening on the global macro-economic space, especially if you consider how other contributing factors such as terrorism and Ebola in West Africa have affected the world of travel. For many years, the African continent has been branded as a single destination, meaning some travellers cannot differentiate between what is happening in Sierra Leone from the rest of Africa.
However, we have sought, through platforms such as the Regional Tourism Organisation of Southern Africa (RETOSA), to work as a bloc and showcase our regional competitiveness and dispel notions that paint Africa with the same brush. That has yielded results as we have registered growth that is above the industry norm.
An improved flow of tourists into the country helps us in our drive to attract both local and foreign investment into the sector. The first thing that an investor would like to know is the number of arrivals per year, and if your foot-count does not justify the investment, then you lose out. The initial less than a million figures had turned off investors’ interest but with improved figures for a country that is 30,000 square kilometres, investing in Lesotho is now making sense.
LT: What strategies are you employing to counter the negative publicity about Lesotho in the wake of the country’s security and political challenges, in order to boost tourist arrivals?
MM: Lesotho has its own story to tell and that is of a resilient people who strongly believe in peace because we are a Kingdom built on the foundations and principles that respected peace. We invoke peace in our national anthem and therefore, we are a people that will continue to value the tenets of peace and we are prepared to go to any lengths to ensure those historic principles of peace espoused by the founder of Basotho, King Moshoeshoe 1, are valued, sustained and respected.
Having said that, with the advent of social media, communication has been revolutionised because we are now able to tell our own stories in real time. The LTDC is working at revamping our social media platforms to communicate through different channels such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We are aggressive in this drive because we have realised that if we do not tell our stories, someone else will and there is the danger of distortion. The LTDC is also collaborating with the local media and we will also soon explore partnerships with regional and global media platforms to help us package our rich stories on our culture, community-based initiatives and the rest of our work aimed at promoting tourism.
LT: What is Lesotho’s major drawcard and where do the majority of the country’s visitors come from?
MM: Through our recent Visitors’ Survey, we have learnt that tourists come to Lesotho for a number of reasons such as to enjoy the high altitude, clean air in the mountains, the beautiful scenery and to recharge themselves after months of busy schedules, a situation we term ‘the escapism concept’. People also come for adventure experience through activities such as hiking, horse-riding and skiing in winter.
The cultural experience is also Lesotho’s strong selling feature as seen from a hive of activities focusing on community-based tourism in the Sani Top area. It provides a comparative advantage for Lesotho because of the uniqueness of the package we offer. Communities are providing homestay accommodation to tourists and that presents employment opportunities and creates a platform to showcase the Basotho way of life. Ideally, we are not mimicking your five-star resort facilities offered in other countries because we have realised there are tourists who are drawn to Lesotho because of its culture and uniqueness. We, therefore, continue prioritising developments that amplify the typical Lesotho tourism experience through initiatives such as regulating the homestay operations and training the rural homestay owners. We have since partnered with the United Nations World Tourism Organisation through their Sustainable Tourism – Eliminating Poverty Programme (ST-EP) which promotes poverty alleviation through the provision of assistance to sustainable development projects. The initiative focuses on enhancing the organisation’s longstanding work to encourage sustainable tourism – social, economic and ecological – with activities that specifically alleviate poverty, deliver development and create jobs for people living on less than a dollar a day. In that regard, we have drawn-up tour circuits around Thaba-Bosiu, Kome, Malimong, and Pulane areas where we seek to have a route that brings together communities around tourism development and contribute to efforts aiming to end poverty.
ST-EP has found Lesotho’s community-based tourism quite interesting, particularly habitants of Kome Caves, which is one of our flagships in tourism. We are certainly looking at the community-based tourism as our driver to future tourism growth because it distinguishes our offerings.
Coming to tourism income drivers, 70 percent of Lesotho’s overall tourism revenue comes from international arrivals while 30 percent comes from domestic tourists made up of locals and regional visitors. While we would like to strengthen our focus on contributing to ensuring that our tourism sector is for Basotho and driven by Basotho, we cannot also lose focus on getting the high value foreign spender to Lesotho. With South Africa as one of Africa’s top tourist destinations, our efforts are focused on strengthening our collaboration with our big brother through allocating adequate resources to bring those regular visitors and ensure that they stay longer.
LT: Could you explain the strategy that will help you lure tourists who visit South Africa and ensure they stay longer?
MM: We are repositioning our tourism sector and there is no running away from the fact that to ensure we get meaningful results, we need to work closely with South African Tourism. This is particularly important considering our constraints brought about by our lack of a national airline which would have helped to attract long-haul tourists who actually bring the bulk of our revenue. Fortunately the government understands the need to re-organise systems in order to strengthen the sector through the development of the Tourism Enterprises Bill, which seeks to respond to the emerging needs. Through the assistance of the African Development Bank, we also have a group of consultants who are supporting the review of the National Tourism Policy and the Tourism Master Plan, among other documents, to ensure that all these legislations are harmonised and are within the framework of sustainable tourism.
In terms of activities targeting regular visitors to South Africa, Lesotho can benefit from joint visitation of tourists through conservation partnerships such as the Maloti Drakensburg Trans-frontier initiative, which has resulted in the declaration of the former Sehlaba-Thebe National Park into a World Heritage Site along with the Ukahlamba Park on the South African side.
Lesotho advocates the free movement of tourists as a way to galvanise economic benefits, particularly following other successful conservation partnerships in the southern African region. If you look at the largest Trans-frontier Park in the region, the Okavango -Zambezi conservation area (KAZA) which is a mega conservation area comprising Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, there is need to be serious about free movement of tourists to leverage the benefits.
In our case, government continues to engage with the South African government to ensure ease of travel based on regional protocols and bilateral agreements signed to strengthen collaboration between the two neighbouring countries. This is a partnership we promote while we also carefully weigh the economic benefits without losing sight of security concerns.
Other issues we are discussing with our government with a view to increase attraction to Lesotho, include the visa fee which is currently not tourism-friendly. The industry norm in terms of pricing is that the visa fees should range from USD 30 to US$50, and our fee is a whooping US$150, which is uncompetitive.
We need to also ensure that our visa pricing packages are competitive and responsive through introducing day visas that can work well for the many visitors we have at the Sani Top, for example. However, despite the pricy visa, we are also criticised in some quarters that everything is free in Lesotho and also not properly regulated. We are, therefore, optimistic that with progressive legislation that is anchored on modern-day sustainable tourism practices, we will attract more tourists. Flexibility is key in the tourism sector and while the Ministry of Home Affairs has done well by introducing electronic visa applications, they need to also facilitate the provision of visas upon arrival, which can diversify options and be our drawcard.
LT: Let us talk about the Star Grading programme supported by the World Bank for a couple of years now with the aim to raise the competitiveness of the accommodation sector. Is the programme adding any value to the tourism sector?
MM: We are very aggressive in ensuring the programme supports the transformation we are striving to achieve. Since we launched the programme in 2013, we had to go back to the drawing board and reorganise ourselves in terms of ensuring that we configure it to become responsive to the market needs. We wanted the actors’ participation before implementation, without losing sight of the international requirements and standards. Following the successful consultative process, we see that actors are starting to enrol into the programme under the World Bank-funded programme, the Private Sector Competitiveness and Economic Diversification. So far, we have graded about 15 facilities and close to 50 are being hand-held with the view to ensure that they are also graded soon for strategic purposes. Human capacity towards this programme has been increased at the LTDC to effectively manage the grading system. We are surely starting to reap the rewards because for us, it was important to have the buy-in of the actors in the accommodation sector.
However, one of our challenges is that in the past, the sector was dominated or was seen to be the purview of a select few. We are now working to ensure that more Basotho participate in this space for inclusivity and with the support from the government.
We are breaking down the barriers that once existed in the hospitality and accommodation sector, which included difficulties associated with bookings. We now see bookings being done locally and revenue collected by the Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA). The rules of engagement have changed. Locals are also participating in the accommodation sector and we would like that participation to be robust. We have started to see Basotho attending major international exhibitions through their own funding. It just goes to show that the tourism bug has finally bitten and ours is to intensify our various educational campaigns seeking to achieve a tourism-centric transformation.
LT: The dictates of modern tourism recognise the value to conserve the environment as it is the foundation where tourism functions are anchored. What efforts are you making to promote the adoption of sustainable environmental conservation practices?
MM: A healthy environment is the very essence of sustainable tourism development and that is why we regard, as imperative, our collaboration with actors in the environment sector. Lesotho is the water table of southern Africa and so if we are to negatively affect those wetlands through uncontrolled development and poor management of the ecosystems, then the sector would be doomed. Every development in Lesotho is based on the ability of the environment to facilitate and interact with various developments. We should, therefore, be mindful of how our actions today can affect future generations and be responsible enough not to destroy the ecological balance that makes what Lesotho is today, an awesome country. Let’s look at the Maletsunyane Waterfalls. The source of the falls is upstream fragile wetlands. They need to be nurtured. Increasingly, the flow of the falls has been dwindling over the years, signalling the need for concerted efforts to rehabilitate the wetlands through discouraging practices such as over-grazing and veld fires.