Have you ever yearned to ‘fly through the air with the greatest of ease, like that daring young man on the flying trapeze’? If you have, it’s not too late, irrespective of your age.
Hermanus-based Clinton Lerm of SA Forest Adventures has just launched his latest zipline installation in the Harkerville forests between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay and according to him, his popular Mossel Bay zipline – the longest in the world over the ocean – regularly hosts tourists over the age of 90. (What’s there to lose, might as well throw caution to the wind and live dangerously!)
Not many people have the courage to launch a new tourism project in the middle of a pandemic, but the Knysna project has been a long time in the making – three years in fact. When SANParks called for tenders in 2017, 35 were submitted and Clinton was delighted when SA Forest Adventures’ bid was accepted.
However, because the zipline is located in a designated forest reserve, near the scenic Harkerville picnic site, they were obliged to comply with a number of strict environmental guidelines. As a result, this has been the costliest project they have tackled so far, calling for the use of special materials and minimal disturbance to the natural environment. Even the creation of noise pollution had to be taken into consideration.
The zipline, 200m from the ground, currently comprises four consecutive cables, with short scenic walks through the forest between platforms. It covers a total distance of 2.2 km, but two more cables will shortly be added, extending the length to 3.5 km. However, Clinton explains that the overall experience encompasses much more than just the zipline.
“The beautiful picnic site is already very popular, but the Park officials estimate that their annual turnover of 3 000 to 6 000 visitors, could more than double with the added attraction of the zipline. So we’re encouraging visitors to make an excursion of it and after the zipline tour enjoy a picnic lunch there. Since launching, we have been offering a half-rate special to South Africans and so far, we’ve been fully booked every day since we opened on 15 September.”
With a boutique hotel in Hermanus, ziplines here, Caledon, Cape Town, Mossel Bay and now Knysna, as well as other adventure activities like quad biking and river rafting, Clinton has his finger on the pulse of the tourist trade in the Western Cape. He says he is generally optimistic about its revival, but it’s not happening as quickly as he had hoped. “Unfortunately, some businesses are simply not going to make it and what I really find scarier than anything else is the number of jobs that are being lost. It’s massive.”
With internal tourism picking up since the advent of Lockdown Level 1, visitors are starting to take weekend trips away, but as he points out, Hermanus and the Whale Coast simply die during the week. “That means we are having to survive on literally eight days’ income per month and in most cases that’s not even enough to cover overheads, let alone make a profit. It’s certainly unsustainable for most accommodation establishments. Some of them are closing altogether during the week and just opening over weekends, but that, of course, has financial implications for the staff as well.
“The other trend we’ve noticed is that potential visitors are far more cost-sensitive than they were before, and they are not booking in advance. They will wait to see what the weather is doing and then literally decide at the last minute to go away, which makes forward planning more difficult.”
In an informal snap survey carried out by Clinton in Mossel Bay, mainly amongst Cape Town visitors, the overwhelming perception was that Hermanus was an expensive destination, hence their decision to bypass the Whale Coast and head instead to Mossel Bay, despite the extra travelling distance. Comparatively speaking, he says there is no truth to this view, especially at this time when many local service providers are offering heavily subsidised packages.
However, perceptions count and changing them is one of the challenges we face. This is the moment when Clinton believes the Overstrand Municipality should be significantly upping its spend on marketing the Whale Coast. “Tourism is one of the top money spinners for our region,” he states, “and it should be front of mind and in the faces of all potential visitors. A survey conducted a few years ago indicated that only 2 – 4% of travellers on the N2 took the time to turn off it and visit Hermanus.”
Eye-catching signage is critical, he believes, and so is creating the impression that Hermanus is a tourist-friendly town. “We could even move that great big whale sculpture from Market Square to the town’s entrance, adding a large welcoming banner. Be that as it may, as citizens, we should all be putting pressure on the municipality to increase its tourism budget, to ensure that our region stands out above the rest.”
Unfortunately, he thinks it is unlikely that foreign recreational travel will get underway to any significant extent until January or February 2021. “It’s all very well for our borders to be semi-open, but one plane-load of visitors does not make a summer; we need a circulation of foreign tourists in the country. Importantly, too, our main source of support – the UK, Europe and America – still remains closed.”
In any case, whether aimed at the local or the international visitor, Clinton believes we need to broaden our tourism focus. As he says, 24 other South African towns are now offering whale-based activities; it is certainly no longer unique to the Whale Coast.
We should be raising the profile of some of our other major attractions – like our superb wine industry, already the second-most-visited wine region in the country. Another major attraction is the diversity of outdoor adventure activities we have on offer, from hiking to cycling, to bird-watching, as well as ocean-based sports like fishing, snorkelling, kite surfing and underwater photography, not forgetting shark cage diving.
The good news is that Clinton is optimistic that local tourism will take off in this region during the December school holidays, which only end around 25 January, when, hopefully, foreign tourists will again begin to arrive in greater numbers to enjoy the unique people and place we are.