Local and foreign investors are in Durban at a two-day conference for a proposed Drakensberg cable car project that has been promoted as a no-brainer and game changer for tourism and the communities living near the Maloti-Drakensberg Park UNESCO World Heritage site in KwaZulu-Natal.
Some of the potential investors said they’re keen to back the project at the Drakensberg Cable Car Investment Conference and Exhibition, underway through today, IndependentOnline reported.
The government says funding the cable car will be impossible without public-private sector partnerships.
The proposed 7 kilometer (4.35-mile) cable car ride will climb the Drakensberg escarpment from a base station at 1,500 meters (4921.26 feet) to the summit at 3,050 meters (10,006 feet) above sea level.
A tourism village is planned near the base station and a shuttle service will transport visitors. The cable car will run up a mountain spur adjacent to the Busingatha Valley to near the summit of Mount Amery.
Once operational, the Drakensberg cable car will help unlock trade opportunities between Lesotho and South Africa and enhance links with the Free State, as well as providing opportunities to link central and northern Drakensberg tourism, proponents say, according to Independent Online.
Not everyone is in favor of the ambitious project, which is expected to cost 500 million rand ($34.085 million US). It has become a political issue, according to IOL.
While a cable car in the Drakensberg might be a nice-to-have project, Member of the Provincial Legislature Ann McDonnell said the proposal comes at a time of extreme financial challenges and cutbacks for the country. The money would be better spent developing sustainable rural tourism and small businesses.
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“The Democratic Alliance (opposition party) is appalled that this pie-in-the-sky project is back on the table,”McDonnell said. “The initiative has had very little support from both conservation and local stakeholders.”
Proponents say a cable car will bring much-needed jobs to a district with about 49,000 unemployed people — something government spending cutbacks cannot address.
The proposed cable car will be situated between the Royal Natal National Park and Cathedral Peak, with its base in the Busingatha Valley, ascending to the summit of Mount Amery.
It has the support of the Drakensberg Experience Tourism Association, which represents about 130 tourism interests, according to Independent Online.
“This really is a no-brainer. It will totally change the dynamics of the tourism industry,” said Chris Hearn, representing the association. “We have everything tourism wise, but need something like a cable car to boost numbers. This is important infrastructure for the country. There is development on either side of where the proposed cable car will go, but nothing for the people in the middle.”
“Everyone is excited about the prospect of the cable car as it will bring opportunities,” said Thulani Sibeko, mayor of uKhahlamba Municipality.
The government has held meetings over the past several years in the region. One in 2013 attracted more than 20,000 local people.
“There was robust participation with people indicating that a project of this magnitude would uplift livelihoods and the local economy,” said Mike Mabuyakhulu, provincial member of the Executive Council for South Africa’s Department of Economic, Tourism and Environmental Affairs.
The proposed cable car will impact the amaZizi community heavily, News24 reported. They live in the Busingatha valley section of the Mnweni area of the Drakensberg, which is also home to the amaNgwane community. A key concern is the impact the project will have on the Drakensberg’s World Heritage Site status. But proponents say the cable car will be built outside the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site.
Along with potential investors attending the conference, international cable car operators and global experts came to talk about their own cable car experiences.
Dominic Bosio with Italy-based Leitner Ropeways, said Kwa-Zulu Natal has what it takes to sustain and grow the project, EastCoastRadio reported. There are about 5,000 similar projects around the globe where there are suitable landscapes, high tourism volumes and minimal impact on the immediate environment, Bosio said.
“They cost really little in terms of energy because basically they are equilibrated which means the cabin going down will help pull in the same cabin filled with people going up,” Bosio said.
“So, operational costs and maintenance costs are limited. It’s a (long-term) capital investment because you are investing in a budget that will last for 30 or more years,” he said.
Zeev Margalit is an architect involved with the cable car at Israel’s historic mountain fort Masada. He says tourism grew from 30,000 visits a year before the cable car was built in 1970, to 150,000-plus one year after, News24 reported. Many people at first doubted the cable car would be successful due to the desert environment that included heat, heavy winds, dust storms and flash floods. The cable car had to be expanded in 2000, and now gets about 800,000 visits per year, Margalit said.
Vahe Baghydasaryan, director of the world’s longest cable car, the Wing of Tatev, in Armenia, said tourism in the Tatev region grew from 2,000 visitors per year before 2010 to more than 700,000 after the cable car was built, according to News24.
The $80 million investment for the Wing of Tatev cable car to the Tatev Monastary was funded by 146 donors from 18 countries, including individuals and organisations of many different religions.
After it was built, 15 new hotels and 25 bed-and-breakfasts were built within a 25 kilometer radius of the cable car. It created 200 jobs directly related to the cable car, a college was funded, a farmers’ market was created, and the cable car helped fund the production of souvenirs in the Tatev region.
About 909,000 visitors use the Table Mountain cable car annually, according to TableMountain.net. It was built in 1929 at a cost of £100,000 ($147,045 US). By today’s standards, that would be $2,033,907 — still a bargain compared to the estimated $34.085 million it will cost to build the Drakensberg cable way.
An adult round-trip fare on the Table Mountain cable way is $16.37. (Some people choose to hike up or down, abseil or descend some other adventurous way, generating income for numerous tourism-related businesses.) That means revenue from cable car fares alone could be up to $14 million.
A Drakensberg cable car will not be possible without government and the private sector working in partnership, said Sihle Zikalala with the Department of Economic Development and Tourism Affairs Executive Council. The government did a feasibility and environmental study that concludes it could be successful.
The next step in the process is the implementation phase, which means inviting private investors to invest and “join hands with us,” Zikalala told Independent Online.