By Tsitsi Matope
Maqutu told the Lesotho Times this week it was critical for the corporation to forge strong partnerships with all decision-makers from both the public and private sectors, which would automatically make them tourism ambassadors wherever they are.
“Senior government officials and also corporate management have a lot of influence in their different spheres both locally and when they are performing other duties internationally.
“As the LTDC, we would like to have well-informed decision-makers who would carry the country’s tourism flag wherever they are operating and be our ambassadors,” Maqutu said.
However, for this to happen Maqutu said the decision-makers need to experience the beauty of some, if not all, of the country’s top tourist attractions.
“This experience will help them understand our tourism products, appreciate them and have the capacity to market the country to all the relevant stakeholders they meet when they travel abroad. We hope this would help increase the number of tourists visiting our country, as well as potential investors.”
According to Maqutu, the government had selected tourism as one of the key priority areas for development.
He explained this comes after noticing its potential to boost other sectors and its ability to create a chain of other sectors, which makes it a crucial vehicle for poverty reduction and employment creation.
It was this realisation, which Maqutu says necessitated new innovations to boost the visibility of the country’s tourism products.
Maqutu, who joined the corporation in July this year, further explained the need to make the sector vibrant enough to claim its rightful place in the economy.
He said branding Lesotho as a nature challenge destination previously did not yield the expected results, hence the need to re-visit the branding of Lesotho as a unique “must visit” eco-tourism destination.
“When I got here, it was clear that the tourism script was almost empty and needed to be populated with products. We are not having as many tourists as we have the potential to receive. This is because the sector, in general, has not been able to take advantage of the fact that Lesotho is a diamond which every tourist would like to see after being embraced by the golden ring, which is South Africa. That is why we need to increase our partnership with South Africa, which continues to knock on our doors in an effort to take tourism in our region to new heights.”
Maqutu explained previous efforts to boost tourist arrivals had been hampered by moving away from, “our strong internationally accepted tag-line of the ‘Kingdom in the Sky’ moniker” which he said may not have been a good move.
Lesotho is the only country in the world which is entirely above 1, 000 metres above sea-level and its lowest point of 1, 400 metres is the highest in the world. Over 80 percent of the country lies above 1,800 metres.
“We don’t need to let go of what distinguishes us as a special and unique destination but simply have to work towards improving that distinction. Globally, Lesotho is known as the Kingdom in the Sky or the Mountain Kingdom and this slogan does indeed speak to our unique topography and high altitude while also recognising the fact that we are one of the only three kingdoms left in Africa.”
He said the country’s strongest selling feature is its eco-tourism natural features.
“We are far from the madding crowd because we sit on a much higher elevation. This elevation, therefore, makes Lesotho the place to be for those who want the freshest air to filter through and clean their lungs.”
He also emphasised the need to highlight the unique fact that Lesotho is the only country in Africa, which wholly snows in winter.
“This should appeal to everyone who loves to ski and those who would want to witness our amazing snow-capped mountains and waterfalls. We also boast of being a ‘four-season’ country” because we have all the seasons — summer, winter, spring and autumn.”
The beauty of the country, according to Maqutu, is also in its strong cultural base that is symbolised by a constitutional monarch and the historic footsteps of its founder, King Moshoeshoe I, which could be traced from Butha Buthe to Thaba Bosiu.
The country, he added, has also managed to preserve its beautiful blanket-wearing culture and secretive initiation of boys and girls, which should all be strong tourist attractions.
“We are rich in culture and currently looking forward to the construction of our first national museum and art gallery, where our stories are going to be told factually. The accurate account of who we are is of paramount importance for the preservation of our actual history as a people.”
Maqutu also explained that the country’s challenging environment for lovers of adventure, was another standalone tourism feature, particularly for backpackers and those who seek to enjoy the mountain trails.
On the other hand, he said, Lesotho has abundant water resources, some of which fill the deep and awesome gorges and also make the country a special place for the discerning tourist. These are also home to the beautiful Rainbow Trout and the endangered Maloti Minnow fish.
The stunning Angora goats, which appear to pause and show-off their chihuahua-like facial features to visitors, are also another interesting feature on the Lesotho’s undulating landscape.
However, despite such an attractive package Lesotho receives just slightly under half- a million tourists annually — far much less than other small countries like Swaziland who receive well over a million tourists every year.
Maqutu said these are worrying statistics, hence his intention to push an agenda that supports the formulation of a government-led, private sector-driven and community-based tourism sector aimed at improving tourism revenue.
“The private sector has a major role to play and with sound business decisions, they can take full advantage of what Lesotho has to offer. We see this through the South African tour operators daily come into Lesotho with droves of tourists while our private sector operators remain as just on-lookers as their neighbours reap the handsome economic rewards.
“We are here to support our private sector and LTDC is committed to assist in the setting-up of robust private sector engagement forums which will deliver the much needed private sector participation.”
He said the recent roll-out of the accommodation star-grading system, is also going to support the private accommodation businesses to improve their facilities and ensure a world-class hospitality sector that does not disappoint visitors.
“With improved facilities, establishments would get visitors willing to stay longer than they usually do. The star-grading exercise is currently voluntary but would be mandatory by 2016.”
Maqutu also explained the importance of having in place strategies that are inclusive of local communities settled around the tourism products.
“We want local communities to participate in developing tourism and assume ownership of various projects. We also need to collectively develop products in partnership with local communities. Without community participation, these products would lack the very essence that can breathe life into them.
“Although the tourists are fascinated with products, these would be meaningless and incomplete if local communities around them are not an integral part. Tourists can only claim an experience of a lifetime when they see smiling people around, waving at them and even giving them water to drink.”
Local communities, the LTDC chief also noted, should be well-educated on how to treat tourists and also be supported to become well-organised for them to tap into the sector and benefit meaningfully.
“Tourism is the only sector where growth and benefits trickle down to a villager singing lengae and dancing Mokhibo,” said Maqutu, adding his focus is also on pushing for the facilitation of renewed investment promotion efforts to further develop tourism products.
Government, he added, has been overburdened by the responsibility to do the bulk of developments alone due to the private sector’s low-participation and appetite in this area.
“It is imperative that the situation is addressed through initiatives such as Public Private Partnerships and other collaborations with Non Governmental Organisations,” he said.
He said there is also need to identify areas that need developments such as road networks, cable cars to limit disturbance on the environment, electricity, water and the much needed accommodation facilities.
Maqutu said the LTDC’s mandate is to bring all stakeholders together and ensure the implementation of systems and development of infrastructure that would improve accessibility and increase spending in Lesotho.
He explained that many years of under-funding the corporation, together with governance-related challenges and an unresponsive organisational structure, negatively impacted on the corporation’s performance.
For the past four years, he explained, the corporation’s financial books have not been audited and this saw the recent introduction of the compliance department, which is expected to help them improve on issues of accountability.
“This has been a welcomed move by our newly appointed board of directors”, he added.
He went on to add: “We are now more inclined to streamlining our operations as seen by the merging of the strategic marketing and the investment promotion departments. However, this is not going to take away the distinctive nature of the two business units or erode their role.”
He said the new organisational structure is meant to improve the corporation’s governance system while at the same time, help LTDC move towards achieving its mandate of marketing Lesotho as a preferred travel and tourism investment destination.
“We are fortunate that the Government understands that for LTDC to be effective, it needs more resources. The Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture and indeed our board of directors, have both pledged unwavering support to ensure that we are adequately funded to execute our mandate.
Already, we are seeing a great improvement in the additional support of our new marketing thrust.”