The link between homo sapien and nature has become increasingly fraught in the 21st century but there is an inherent personal interest for each and every one of us to take conservation to their heart.
Within South Africa, roughly 6 per cent of the country’s 122 million hectares is Government-protected (excluding the growing marine protected areas at coastal parks) with 3.9 million hectares the responsibility of South African National Parks (SANParks) and the balance within the remit of the individual provinces.
SANParks’ remit is very broad and the organisation faces a number of challenges, not least to generate revenue to help preserve a fragile eco-system. A significant part of operational funding is generated through tourism, as Joep Stevens, General Manager, Strategic Tourism Services outlines:
“We are a parastatal, which makes us Government-owned, but as an institution we run independently and operate an independent budget. We receive a conservation grant annually which contributes around 16 per cent of our operational budget, but the rest is from our own tourism activity.
“We are in a unique position as a protected area institution globally, as we run our tourism in-house; roughly 90 per cent of our tourism business is run by ourselves, rather than outsourced.”
SANParks tourism broadly caters for the 3-star self-catering market but is increasingly re-assessing its offerings to accommodate changing demographics. Stevens is responsible for the policies, systems, standards, revenue and customer care for a business which, due to its sheer size, offers plenty of challenges.
There are 21 national parks in total, with Kruger National Park very much the flagship. In addition, Stevens says that there are over 4,000 permanent staff, with a further 250 employees employed on contracts.
SANParks operates to three main pillars, as Stevens describes: “Our core areas are: conservation, tourism and social issues. The first two areas are fairly clear but the third pillar tries to link and connect nature more to societal benefits.
“It is about trying to let everyone in South Africa understand the parks and to feel good about them and to understand that they are a good thing. We are quite privileged in South Africa that 75 per cent of our customers are domestic; in other countries on the Continent there is a lot more reliance on people from overseas.
“The challenge is to get everyone engaged in what we are doing and many people have other priorities as basic as putting food on the table. We are trying to attract more black customers to the parks; at present around 30 per cent of our domestic customer base is black and that needs to come up to around 80 per cent. We have an important sales and marketing focus on demographics but we also have to be aware of their differing service preferences.”
To that end, SANParks is currently looking at changing part of it service model.
“Most of our parks have what we call ‘Rest Camps’ – Kruger for example, has 20 (70 across all national parks) of these. They are generally 3-star self-catering sites, often chalets, which have been hugely popular as current domestic market prefer to do their own thing,” says Stevens.
“However our changing demographics have different needs and we are now starting to enter the 3 to 4-star full-service market – where we feel there is still room for more competition.
He says that the diversity of landscapes and the different climate zones and seasons make for a relatively constant supply of visitors across the year, with January and February perhaps the low seasons.
“We operate to 70 per cent room occupancy, which is relatively high in the South African market. One of our biggest challenges is recruitment and training and the latter is an area we perhaps haven’t done as well as we could in the past.
“Part of the problem is that there are such a diverse range of job opportunities within SANParks: from rangers to drivers, cleaner, chefs, vets and engineers. We would like to create our own training academy but for the time being we rely largely on external service providers for these services.
“There is also a skills shortage and experience in certain fields is scarce and expensive to recruit. Our salary levels are perhaps not as attractive to skilled workers as in other locations and it can be difficult to fill technical positions given the salary and remote locations.”
Keeping costs down to a minimum is another constant battle at a time when rising utility costs in particular put a strain on business. One of the solutions undertaken at SANParks has been to outsource its fleet of 500 vehicles, as Stevens explains:
“Most of the vehicles are used to carry staff, supplies and equipment and we deploy a large fleet of ‘bakkies’. The maintenance side is of course a great challenge given the terrain and remote locations and about a decade ago we decided to change to a vehicle fleet system. We use a fleet management service provider and the mechanics that work on those vehicles are not on our pay system.
“However in other areas, due to high governance requirements, it can be difficult doing business within the constraints of a Government institution. Our restaurants are now outsourced and can be far more responsive to change, particularly when it comes to sourcing local supply chain. Retail is another area that we have outsourced – leaving it to the specialists to bring in much needed revenue,” he adds.
Stevens says that within South Africa the term ‘Responsible Tourism’ has become a prominent factor in recent years, not just looking at environmental issues but delivering added consideration and involvement for local communities, for example.
SANParks has certainly embraced this concept as it adapted its objectives to formulate a 10 year Responsible Tourism Plan of direction. At present the organisation has a number of high-ranking positions to fill, having just recruited a new Chief Executive Officer. Of course new blood may bring fresh ideas and a new direction.
At the same time, SANParks has to be flexible and able to react to new challenges such as the increased threat of rhino poaching. As a consequence, Stevens says that other projects have to cede to the more urgent demands.
The business is currently introducing a new IT system to help improve the existing one for tourism bookings and property management, which can be complicated, as Stevens explains:
“The solution we are looking for cannot be purchased off the shelf and our requirements are rather unique, for example reservations need to be itinerary-based, and then the issue of gate access into the Parks.
“We can’t simply buy a solution for the reservations and property management requirements. 10 years ago we developed a system – which is now dated and needs replacements. We are in process of developing that now.
The other big investment is in the first two full-service lodge sites, situated within Kruger National Park:
“We need to get these two facilities in place; they will attract a new market and will produce additional revenue for us at a time when costs are rising. These are at the conceptual stage and one will be run by the private sector and have gone through the PPP (Public Private Partnership) process to find a suitable operator.
“The second site will probably be run in-house and is in the design phase currently; we hope to commence construction in the next 12-18 months at a cost of roughly R250 million.”
Despite the numerous challenges, Stevens has cause for optimism at present:
“The global economic meltdown of 2009 undoubtedly impacted on our international market but over the last 6 months the decline in the Rand has made South Africa much more attractive as a destination. Our top 5 overseas client bases are Germany (which accounts for around a third of this business), the Netherlands, UK, France and USA. All have reported strong growth in the past 6 months.
“The Internet has had a huge impact and we operate a web reservations system with roughly a third of reservations now made online. We have also tapped into the Smart Phone technology and have a number of apps available offering reservations and game reserve updates.
“One of our big challenges is to improve our standards of service and to have a greater focus on the customer. We have a rating just under 80 per cent from our customers which is very good but leaves room for improvement.
“We have to make sure that visitors feel welcome and improve the interpretation and environmental education provided. In the past we perhaps took it for granted that our visitors knew what they should and may do when visiting national parks. However, for first time visitors, a lot more needs to be done to effectively convey the conservation message and enhance the national park experience.
“Transforming our customer profile is crucial to our future to ensure that the parks don’t become marginalised.
“We also have to maintain the infrastructure within the parks – some of this in Kruger and elsewhere is close to100 years old. We have to invest more in maintenance.
“We are also currently looking very closely at product development and supplementary offerings for the guests, like hot air ballooning, bungee jumping or rock climbing activities, amongst many ohers.”
South Africa National Parks is working hard to preserve a legacy for future generations, while delivering greater appreciation for the present one.