SANParks aims to get more people into parks by spreading the message that it’s the best real estate in the world. Once seen, you’ll always want to come back. Wild talks to Hapiloe Sello, who’s in charge of tourism.

Almost every year the areas under SANParks’ protection continue to grow, even as government funding declines. To increase the support base for conservation, the aim is to get more South Africans into the parks.

Wild sat down with Hapiloe Sello, the Managing Executive for Tourism and Marketing, to find out how the organisation sees the future.

Is there enough support for the national parks?

We have extremely loyal clients who are repeat visitors, who come to our parks two or three times a year. They tend to be domestic tourists and they are our lifeblood, so looking after them is particularly important. They are very much appreciated. Our challenge is that these loyal clients are not necessarily particularly young, whereas the majority of South Africans are 35 years and under. We are not seeing enough of the younger generation across the races – new faces coming in and adopting the parks as destination choices.

We have the luxury of having 19 parks, yet 70 per cent of our visitors go to Kruger and Table Mountain National Park only. Yet in each of the 19 parks there is a destination for every taste and preference. For example, I love water, I love mountains and I am passionate about heritage, so Golden Gate, Tsitsikamma and Mapungubwe are immediately my favourites. Other people do the Big Five.

What is SANParks doing to get more people into more parks?

We are creating events for people to come to the parks, people who wouldn’t necessarily come otherwise. We are giving people an excuse to visit a park. Once seen, you’ll always want to come back. The events themselves are not money spinners, they are profileraising events for the parks. We are also increasing our social media presence with special offers and promotions.

What are some of the events you’ve hosted?

We’ve created the annual Golden Classics concerts and also the Mapungubwe Lecture Series. At the Golden Classics you can see opera without dressing up, you can enjoy art in the wild. The vision is for the lecture series to evolve into an annual event with different academics giving their perspectives on Mapungubwe’s history. Two years ago we had our weekend of African Spirituality, which we still have to revisit. We’re constantly conceptualising new events and refining them, and we have a few surprises in store regarding brand awareness.

Do you see culture and history playing a bigger role in attracting visitors?

Yes, SANParks has the secondary mandate of conservation of cultural heritage. We have amazing history attached to the areas we conserve, more than people are aware. There is Thulamela in Kruger, there is Masorini, places that tell the history of our people. We have incredible rock paintings and we have Mapungubwe, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Over the next couple of years we are going to start amplifying the cultural and heritage side a bit more.

What part does technology have to play?

The market we need to grow is young, these are people who live on immediacy of everything, short attention spans. For them everything has to be technology driven, preferably mobile, so we should be looking at a future where a lot of the tourism experience is enhanced by technology.

We have to improve our transaction systems. How quickly we process people through the gates, how quickly people can book and get feedback, how quickly people can get information. We’d love to develop apps and other devices that serve as tour guides since interpretation is powerful in enhancing visitor experience.

Once you’ve been through the interpretation of Mapungubwe Hill, it stops being merely a hill, your mind is able to conjure up how life was in that area in the 14th century. For Kruger, it might say, ‘You’ve just passed the Masorini Ruins’ or ‘This is Lake Panic’ and explain what it means. Those pieces of information enhance experiences.

The younger market is also looking for a variety of things to do in the parks. We have to develop more activities inside and on the periphery of parks; for example, ziplining, quad biking and mountain biking.

How important is tourism in achieving SANParks’ conservation goals?

The revenues are what fund our ability to continuously guard the conserved areas. It is a fine balance between the carrying capacity of our conserved areas and the need to drive revenues. That’s why we practise what we call responsible tourism, which means we touch the Earth lightly in the products we develop and in the numbers of tourists that come into our parks.

Last financial year we had 1.7 million people in Kruger, but Kruger is not overdeveloped at all. Less than five per cent of the two million hectares of the park is developed, and that includes roads. We’re building Skukuza Safari Lodge in Skukuza because the camp is disturbed ground already, to attract a conference market for our state-of-the-art conference centre. Business tourism is powerful in that it brings huge numbers for conferences. Typically, a large percentage of delegates return to destinations for leisure visits.

What is your favourite?

It’s difficult to choose, but I do love going to Tsitsikamma and watching the sea. There’s something about the contrast between the lush, indigenous forest and this wild sea smashing against the rocky shoreline. I find something incredibly calming about it. I still have to do the suspension bridge, but the morning walks are beautiful. Being there gives me a sense of peace.

When nature survives #southafrica #nature #ocean #nationalpark #tsitsikamma

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Main picture by Francois Booyens and styling by Lee-Ann Nourse