Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC) chief executive officer, Mpaiphele Maqutu, has his work cut-out as he and his team strive to ensure the country soars above the rest of southern Africa as an ideal tourism destination. In this wide-ranging interview with Lesotho Times (LT) reporter Rethabile Pitso, Mr Maqutu outlines LTDC’s vision and activities the corporation is undertaking as part of its mandate.
LT: What, in a nutshell, is the LTDC’s mandate in addition to being the marketing arm of the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture (MTEC)?
Maqutu: We are a parastatal established through an Act of Parliament and fall directly under the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture as a semi-autonomous body. LTDC has a specific mandate to promote Lesotho and market it as a tourist destination of choice among international, regional, and domestic tourists. With domestic tourism, which we are currently promoting through the ‘know your country first campaign’; we want Basotho to travel this country first before travelling to other countries.
Our mandate is also to promote investment that is sector-specific, in other words an investment in tourism. By that I mean we wish to achieve our goals of compelling tourists to stay longer in the country with the view to spend money which would lead to the achievement of our ultimate goal of creating sustainable jobs.
In our endeavors to achieve this sustainability, we take caution towards issues of environment which are key priorities. When we promote tourism which disregards safety measures for the environment, then we risk compromising the very sustainability we strive for. So we have to do it in a responsible manner hence the reason we encourage Responsible Tourism which, among other things, embodies that we not only bring in people such as Foreign Direct Investors, but also those who don’t just conduct business as an island of prosperity within a sea of prosperity. The investors have to ensure communities around their establishments also benefit from their presence.
In our execution, we are guided by Vision 2020 and National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP) documents. In the NSDP, tourism has been identified as one of the top four priority sectors. We do everything mindful of the broader mandate that government seeks to achieve.
LT: Since September is World Tourism Month, how is Lesotho marking this occasion?
Maqutu: It’s true this month has been declared International Tourism Month by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and 37 September has been chosen as World Tourism Day. We have geared this year’s theme: ‘Billions of tourists, billions of opportunities’ towards creating the much-needed job opportunities. For us here, celebrations will take place at Avani Lesotho on the 25th of September in the evening, where we will also take the time to reward different initiatives ranging within the tourism sector, which have excelled at what they do. The categories are crafts, pottery, artists who have stood out, accommodation establishments for example in recognition of the fact that they are the sector players who have encouraged tourism and who have and can in turn encourage others to emulate the same towards boosting the sector.
LT: Is it by mere coincidence that your tourism celebrations are taking place alongside Cultural Week?
Maqutu: There is an initiative which is specifically driven by our parent Ministry which seeks to support events taking place within tourism month. The Honorable Minister of MTEC, Ms Likeleli Tampane, was particularly passionate about having a Tourism Week which would see Basotho dressing up in their traditional attire, play cultural music and dine on traditional dishes. The ministry also strategically decided to partner with the likes of the Ministry of Communication in terms of highlighting the move from analogue to digital to spread the tourism celebrations through television broadcast. It means a lot of Basotho would enter the theatre realm with the aim of creating programmes for the number of channels we would be afforded by the transition.
Then there is the Ministry of Local Government currently hosting the Inter-Municipality Games. These participants from different countries are staying in our accommodation establishments which are fully-booked at the moment. That’s why we needed to ensure the standard of accommodation we offer is satisfactory because these are the same people we would wish to have back in the country again.
LT: You have a number of outreach programmes, including numerous trainings you have imparted on Basotho towards improving the tourism sector. Could you highlight a few that you can rank among your best achievements?
Maqutu: In the area of Kome, we have played a significant role simply because Kome, by its very nature, is one of the few places in the world where people are still living in caves, and these are a direct generation of families from the days of cannibalism. We still have the same family living there in terms of its descendants, living in the same caves. It’s a marvel in its own right. So we have sought, among others, to empower the community through training. Just recently, we held trainings for homestay-owners. These are villagers who use their homes as accommodation establishments for tourists hoping to experience a typical Sotho way of life and want to live among a certain family and getting a first-hand feel of the culture.
There are some tourists who love that. By virtue of them coming from their countries where they probably experience the five-star mode of life, we do not intend to compete with that on those grounds. Granted, there are those who want Europe by night and Lesotho by day, but there are those who also come here because they still want to experience the most authentic Mosotho way of life. So there are people who do that and we seek to promote that.
The trainings we have undertaken in Kome have earned the people a way of living by offering their houses as accommodation but of course, there are certain standards of hygiene they have to observe. Such things as presentation of the room, menus, and food storage are some of the modules offered in the training.
We have further trained some people around there as tour guides who now have a homogenous knowledge of the place. There are also other public outreach programmes we offer through our public relations office which, among others, advocates safety. For example, when tourists visit our shores, we don’t want them to be harassed by herdsmen in terms of stone-throwing. Issues of vandalism of tourist property or tampering with road-signage are addressed through our public relations office.
LT: How have you been able to incorporate the issue of creating youth employment into your programmes?
Maqutu: Government, being the main employer, can no longer afford to do that; government’s wage-bill is out of control. And we have to play a role in assisting government to create employment. One way we try, at LTDC, to assist is by promotion and support for the tour operation business which is our weakest link in terms of Basotho not taking advantage of its lucrative opportunities. Currently, that business is not in the hands of Basotho. Ideally, we would like them to operate in that space which, at the moment, has remained a concern. What tour operators from other countries are basically doing is booking visitors in advance from their destinations, ferrying them into the country with their pre-packed lunches, and then they go back and sleep in the likes of Clarens in South Africa. What have we gained as Lesotho? Nothing. The kind of tour packages those guys sell are quite expensive for that matter- ranging from a couple of hundred to thousands per person.
We felt compelled to educate Basotho on the kind of packages on offer. I have a brochure which illustrates a tour operator that charges per person up to M12 000 just to visit the country. I mean, if you take 10 people for that amount, you can make M120 000 per trip so this goes to show we need to educate Basotho on the kind of money they can make in tour operation; it’s a very lucrative business.
So ours, among others, is also to address such issues by making sure Basotho trade in that space. We also try to get in touch with banks to finance the business. Some local banks have shown interest to play in the tourism space and hopefully, fund some young enterprising Basotho who could procure a vehicle, have it branded, powered by such and such bank, creating a win-win situation for the parties involved.
We have also recently ended an excursionists’ training which was facilitated by a UNWTO representative Carole Favre from overseas to impart the best knowledge on our budding entrepreneurs. Even though Lesotho is an economic destination without a big economic muscle, we still compete for the same tourists with countries such as China, Switzerland, and South Africa, so we have to raise the bar.
Through the public relations office, we also sponsor students in different institutions. Last week, I attended the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology graduation ceremony where, as LTDC, we rewarded students who performed well in the area of tourism. We gave them very nice contemporary prizes by way of tablets just to show that the time has passed that the youth should be seeking employment but instead, creating employment. We also offer youths internship towards the fulfillment of their academic programmes.
The beauty about tourism is you can employ someone with little or no education who could be capacitated with handicraft skills, pottery, right to accommodation establishments. Everybody has a role to play in that value-chain. One does not have to have a huge bank account, but only enterprise and become passionate about what you do. Putting aside government, textile and mining among main employers, tourism is next biggest employer.
LT: How has the response been from the ‘Know Your Country First’ campaign?
Maqutu: We are pleasantly surprised by the way Basotho have taken up to the campaign. As we speak, as part of this week’s tourism celebrations, we initiated the concept months ahead where we encouraged districts to compete against themselves for the final winner to be announced at the tourism awards ceremony scheduled for this Friday.
The other thing worth noting is the way the youths have embraced the issue of their own heritage, their own identity, by wearing branded T-shirts or sweater replicas indicating such things as their clan names. There is a hype that is happening. There are people who have merchandised the Moshoeshoe logo such as Basutoland Ink and Legends of Lesotho, just to mention but a few. All of them speak to identifying themselves as a Mosotho and being proud about it and it is just amazing to see the youth so engaged.
We are pleasantly happy and continue to promote the campaign through going to roadshows and visiting tertiary institutions.
LT: Any message you wish to put out there regarding Lesotho’s tourism?
Maqutu: There is something that has touched my heart with regard to SOME police officers who are really harassing tourists. Fortunately, police authorities are supportive to us but we still need to work together to weed out those who, when they see a foreign car, see it as a way of cashing-in. We are living during the smartphone era where, if somebody shares such a video on social media, it goes viral. It absolutely subtracts any effort or initiative we have been doing to try to get people to come to our country.
Fortunately for us, we are known as a hospitable country. In a typical Mosotho home, we are taught to respect a visitor. Just in my own house, there is certain cutlery we are forbidden from eating from because they are kept safely for specific occasions when visitors come. It is the case in many families here. We know the value of such people we have to treat in a special way. We are proud of the feedback we get from tourists who have been to the country who say ‘Basotho people are friendly, warm and hospitable’. However, we still have these hotspots of people who seek to tarnish that image that sets us apart from many nations. I think we need to implore everybody—the youth, government, ourselves—that let’s fight to ensure Lesotho becomes a destination of choice. We are competing with other nations and need to make sure there is something that defines us distinctly.
Speaking of culture, we are also fortunate that there are some nations whose tourism is propelled almost entirely by culture but in Lesotho, we are lucky in the sense that we have a strong heritage and background which is unique. I am glad the youths are branding themselves with Sotho replicas. We need to reclaim our culture; we need to claim back our traditional blanket, Seanamarena and our Mokorotlo hat because we risk losing them. Other cultures are quickly beginning to identify with our own identity better than we are doing here. We ought to claim that back and showcase our Basotho pride.