A cable car that takes tourists to the top of one of the worlds most dramatic and unspoilt mountain regions might sound like a gem of an idea and one that could grace glossy travel brochures the world over, but do we really need it?
The surprise announcement that the province was planning a cable car in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg could take the local tourism industry to new heights. One of the preferred sites for the cable car was in the Mnweni Valley near the Royal Natal National Park and North of the popular Amphitheatre section of the World Heritage Site.
Economic Development and Tourism MEC, Mike Mabuyakhulu, unveiled the plan at the 2012 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 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.
A pre-feasibility study conducted 12 years ago had indicated that benefits of a cable car would include 1200 jobs and increased opportunities for small and medium-sized entrepreneurs. There would be an intermediate station “climbing 1 300m to the summit which would be in Lesotho will be an elevation of 3 300m (Three times the height of Table Mountain) above sea level offering expansive views of KZN, Lesotho and the Free State”.
It had to offer views of neighbouring Lesotho and the Free State and this would thus enhance regional tourism, said Mabuyakhulu. “All three regions have to benefit,” he said, adding that a joint planning committee between the three regions would look at the plan. 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.
“But the real question is whether such a facility would damage the very asset that the cable car is intended to celebrate. It is both unique and very sensitive, and should be approached with considerable caution and respect. The next question is the practicality and feasibility of such a proposal.”
“Table Mountain … is in the centre of the city. These are not wild and remote destinations like the Drakensberg mountain range. You don’t have to travel for hours to get there, which in revenue terms is important.”
Addressing environmental concerns, Mabuyakhulu emphasised in a later interview that “we will ensure that we don’t compromise the heritage site”.
Radley Keys, the DA KZN spokesman for conservation and environmental affairs, said yesterday that the plan was “no April Fools’ joke and raises major environmental concerns, along with questions over whether the initiative is to be self-funding or whether it is likely to become yet another financial burden to the province.”
The project had been on the cards since 2000, with one of the preferred sites then being the Mnweni Valley next to the Royal Natal National Park section of the World Heritage Site, he recalled.
“The success of the Table Mountain cableway lies largely in the fact that it is self-funding and does not rely on the provincial government for its economic survival,” Keys said.