In conversation with Refiloe Ramone

We were privileged to have Refiloe Ramone join us for a large part of our journey through the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA), and during this time I managed to get his insight into meaningful, sustainable and responsible tourism and how it can benefit local communities.

“The reason behind promoting the MDTFCA route, which covers Freestate, Eastern Cape, KZN and the Kingdom of Lesotho, is to ensure that cross-border tourism is developed in a sustainable and economic manner”, he tells me. “So that the communities within these areas are the primary beneficiaries of the tourism revenue created by this route.”

I ask Refiloe to elaborate on one some of the projects that they are initiating. “Initially we are proposing to enhance what the communities are already involved in, for instance the bee-keeping projects which have resulted in Lesotho’s organic honey being most sought after. And there’s the peach orchards, where communities grow, harvest and bottle their peaches, most of which are sold off quickly as they are so delicious.”

We had driven past several hillsides dusted in the pink of peach trees in flower, so this certainly made sense. We discuss the possibility of extending these orchards, which he tells me would be great but for the longer period required before a return on investment. But certainly something for the future. For now, it would be optimising what they already have, and what they do well.

“These are a few of the possibilities, the low hanging fruits that will have a financial return for the communities in a relatively short time frame.”

He tells me that there used to be a homestay initiative, but with the onset of Covid it was stopped, but is something they are looking at resuscitating. “We have in the meantime being supporting our communities on capacity building as tour guides, the offering pony trekking and cultural activities, as well as the making and selling of crafts.”

They are also helping the communities to enhance the quality of their product to make it more desirable to travellers, and are assisting them with the marketing of their products. “With the easing of Covid restrictions we are hoping that this will benefit the communities going forward.”

As I’d come to realise on this trip, the Transfrontier Park is unique in a special way, “we don’t have the Big 5” he says, “but what we do have is spectacular scenery, varied terrain and landscapes and diverse flora and fauna.”

“Eco-tourism is a growing industry, and we have to ensure and advocate the inclusion of the private sector as well, as they play a major role in the promotion of tourism within the region” says Refiloe, “we need to ensure that they come up with itineraries and packages that include the communities within the areas that they operate in. By creating this collaborative organisation we aim to ultimately benefit the entire community within the route.”

“The itinerary of this trip has highlighted to me that this is happening and that communities are beginning to realise a return and are also beginning to feel an ownership in tourism which gives them more confidence to continue engaging with tourism activities.”

“And with the summer season upon us we are expecting a growth in tourism activities such as hiking and mountain biking, as well as birdwatching and are hoping that these visitors will take advantage of the great community experiences on offer.”