The recent refurbishment of Afsaal Picnic Site has sparked concerns among some nature lovers. Is Kruger becoming too commercial?

Following the recent renovations, Afsaal Picnic Site is looking clean and fresh, but still in keeping with Kruger’s feel.

As one of the Kruger National Park’s most popular rest stops, Afsaal was in need of a little TLC. The picnic site was opened in April 1984 as a stopover on the long 64km stretch between Malelane Gate and Skukuza. Since then, the number of visitors have greatly increased and the kitchen and dining areas needed to be refurbished.

The upgrade, which was revealed in December 2018, includes a new takeaway counter, expanded coffee options, shaded seating and a revamped curio shop. The refurbishment provides hungry and weary travellers with a vastly improved offering, but not all Kruger fans are in support.

The main concern raised is about the commercialisation of the park (Afsaal, which was operated by the park when it first opened, is now managed by Tindlovu).

A case for going commercial

Conservation is a costly business and currently SANParks must draw on a variety of funding sources – such as tourism income and donations – to fulfil its mandate. In 2000, SANParks adopted the Commercialisation Strategy as an essential building block to help sustain its work. If one source of funding is threatened, SANParks must be able to absorb such withdrawal without compromising its sustainability.

Currently SANParks receives only 15% of its funding from Government and the organisation has to generate the balance. Just five of the 19 national parks make enough to cover their own operational costs: Addo, Augrabies, Kgalagadi, Kruger and Table Mountain. The surplus goes toward the upkeep of the other parks, which are important areas from a biodiversity perspective.

The Commercialisation Strategy has been enormously successful and has yielded 50 Public-Private Partnerships with infrastructure developments worth over R755 million, a total revenue of R1,060 million as at 31 March 2018 and 2,016 permanent jobs. PPPs cover a large range of products including five-star lodges, well-managed restaurant and retail facilities, Skukuza Airport in the Kruger National Park, numerous activities across national parks and facilities such as the Skukuza Spa and Table Mountain Aerial Cableway product, all enhancing the experience of visitors to national parks.

The Skukuza AM Spa Kruger is one of the successful commercialisation products. The spa offers restorative treatments in a down-to-earth setting. Picture by Sabie Botha

Responsible Tourism Development

SANParks takes a responsible approach to tourism and commercialisation to avoid compromising the biodiversity mandate. In 2012, a 20-year Responsible Tourism Strategy for SANParks was drafted and approved. This ensures that the principles and standards of Responsible Tourism are adhered to during the development of tourism (including commercial) and support infrastructure.

When developed and managed in a sustainable and responsible way, tourism commercialisation can be instrumental in safeguarding biodiversity. Around the world tourism revenue, including commercialisation income, is core to the funding of biodiversity conservation.

Concessions in South African national parks are strictly monitored and an independent control officer is appointed for each development to ensure compliance to SANParks’ environmental guidelines. The Kruger National Park is strictly zoned to outline areas where development can take place, as well as the scale thereof. Appointed operators have to obtain the required environmental authorisation before any plans may be implemented.

In a statement, Pieter Malan of operator Tindlovu reiterated that procedures have been put in place to ensure renovations do not hinder the environment. Park visitors with concerns or queries can email [email protected]. “Every concern will be raised and re-addressed before the commencing of the spa and children’s play area,” he avowed.

Where to go for a rustic coffee stop

A little over a month in, the upgrades at Afsaal have won positive reviews. Users on Facebook have posted that “the place looks great… and the toilet facilities are finished and look great”, and that “Afsaal is also the best rest area to stop for breakfast or lunch”. Wild travellers are encouraged to go and see the upgraded picnic site for themselves.

If the latest conveniences are not your thing and you long for something more rustic, the south of Kruger has several other rest stops to consider. James recommends the picnic site close to Pretoriuskop on the H1-1, Mlondozi (north of Lower Sabie), Nlanguleni (northwest of Tshokwane), Muzandzeni (southwest of Satara) and Nwanetsi (east of Satara).

What’s more, the park management plan allows for the development of new picnic sites south of the Sabie River in the near future. These will be non-commercial and rustic, so Kruger lovers can look forward to even more rest stops in future.

Also read: Kruger’s best rest stops for views