LESOTHO is an amazing country. From pony trekking to abseiling, dinosaur footprints to dongas, Lesotho has majestic natural beauty and intriguing history in each of its 10 districts.
Still, its fledgling tourism industry has yet to capitalise on these abundant assets.
The newly-appointed Minister of Tourism, Mannete Ramaili, has her work cut out. But the situation is far from hopeless.
Let us start with what Lesotho has going for it. Anyone who has seen the splendour of the Maluti Mountains, the seductive beauty of the falls at Semonkong, or the ancient cave drawings at Kome Caves can tell you that when it comes to top-notch tourist attractions, the Mountain Kingdom has got the goods.
There’s the highest pub in Africa, rare fish and wildlife, and all the delicious peaches one can eat. Visitors can buy weavings, blankets and hats to show off back home.
And best of all, Basotho are friendly and welcoming. With all there is to see and do, visitors cannot be disappointed.
But how do they come here in the first place?
Many people around the world have never even heard of Lesotho, let alone considered visiting it.
Well, strange as it may sound, this can be seen as a good thing. Many travellers, particularly young and adventurous backpackers, seek out far-flung, less-known destinations.
They go to great lengths in order to “discover” a new hot-spot before the rest of the world catches on.
They relish bragging to fellow travellers and friends and family back home about their adventures in exotic corners of the globe.
Countries like Tibet, Columbia and the Czech Republic have each become backpacking hot-spots thanks in part to their reputations as “unexplored” or “off-limits” at one time or another.
The fact that Lesotho is near other better known tourist destinations like South Africa and Mozambique (both former ‘no-gos’ now basking in tourism booms) puts it in a unique position to be a cool stop-off on an otherwise conventional trip.
This could be played up in advertising literature with phrases like: “off the beaten-path”, “unexplored”, or “Africa like you’ve never seen it before!”
Lesotho is small and, therefore, fairly easy to navigate. More tourist-friendly roads are being built all the time, like those to Thaba-Tseka and Ts’ehlanyane.
The network of taxis and buses is far from perfect, but it is comprehensive and serviceable.
And it could be drastically improved cheaply and easily through better regulation of the warring fleets of Quantums and kombis.
Countries like Thailand and Guatemala have greatly enhanced their tourism by focusing on user-friendly tourist transport.
Improving these services would make Lesotho more attractive to tourists, and as an added bonus improve the quality of life for the average Mosotho.
But what about the not-so-good?
First and foremost, Lesotho has to improve safety for foreign visitors. Violent crime, particularly in Maseru, has become a real problem for Basotho and foreigners alike.
Visitors from abroad especially feel, because they look different and are assumed to be rich, like they have targets on their backs.
Potential tourists hear about this and it keeps them away. For tourism to grow in Lesotho, this must change.
There also must be more and better options for budget travellers. High-end tourists are fine, but much of their money misses the local economy, instead going to foreign-owned hotels, travel agents and car-rental companies.
Students and backpackers are more likely to use local transportation, patronise local vendors and eat at local restaurants, thus injecting their dollars, euros, pounds and yen directly into the local economy.
Some lodges are already doing their part by offering budget options.
But most hotels, particularly those in Maseru and the camptowns, offer only over-priced and rundown facilities, preferring to focus on hosting workshops for ministries and private organisations.
Yet it is not only up to private businesses; the Ministry of Tourism must also take measures to attract tourists.
A national tourism card, offering discounts at hotels, shops, and tourist attractions throughout the country, would help.
An ad campaign aimed at locals could encourage Basotho to explore their own country. Or perhaps a Peach Festival, similar to the annual Cherry Festival in Ficksburg?
These are just suggestions, but the ministry must do more to promote tourism in Lesotho.
With such a relatively few viable options for economic growth currently available to Lesotho, tourism stands out as a shining beacon of untapped possibilities.
And with the wealth of attractions that Lesotho has, there is no reason that those possibilities should not become reality.
The new minister has a chance to take advantage of the situation. I hope that she does — for the good of the country.
Greg Viola is an American volunteer who has been in Lesotho since June 2009.
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