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Adequate resources needed to market Lesotho – LTDC CEO

LESOTHO Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC) acting Chief Executive Officer, Tebello Thoola, says the miniscule budget, that the department of tourism is allocated, not only hampers progress but also creates an impression that the corporation is sitting on its laurels instead of marketing Lesotho to the world as an ideal tourism destination. For the corporation to do its work properly, adequate resources are needed.

In an exclusive interview with the Lesotho Times (LT)’s Moorosi Tsiane, this week, Mr Thoola elaborated on the LTDC’s challenges while also outlining its programmes and strategic partnerships with the private sector aimed at promoting domestic tourism.

Mr Thoola also touched on the National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP) III, a document which is currently at formulation stages in which tourism has been identified as one of the priority areas and strategic sectors for economic growth and national development.

Below are excerpts from the interview:

LT: What is the LTDC in a nutshell?

Thoola: It is an implementing agency for the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Business Development and Tourism, whose mandate is to promote and market Lesotho as a unique travel and tourism destination locally, regionally, and internationally.

LT: What role does tourism play as a strategic sector in economic growth and national development, especially now that it has specifically been identified as a priority area in the formulation stages of the National Strategic Development Plan III (NSDP III)?

Thoola: Tourism has been identified as one of the sectors to create jobs and we are expected to do that with the help of the private sector.

As I have said, the LTDC was established under an Act of parliament to market Lesotho as a unique tourism destination locally, regionally and internationally to attract local, regional, and international tourists and investors. It is supposed to create awareness, educate and to get the international players to include Lesotho in their tourism packages. They help us to sell Lesotho on our behalf because those are the people who organize guide tours to Africa, Europe etc. Specifically, in the NSDP III tourism has been identified as one of the priority sectors to create jobs for poverty alleviation and to improve the livelihoods of Basotho; and lastly for tourism to contribute to the economic growth of Lesotho.

LT: How is the LTDC expected to achieve all that?

Thoola: Our core business as I have said, is to market and promote Lesotho. So, we do all that with the private sector through the LTDC and the Ministry of Trade Industry, Business Development and Tourism. We cannot promote Lesotho by ourselves.  We need our major stakeholders, meaning our accommodation sub sector, tour operations, tour guides, travel agencies, so on and so forth, should come on board.

The ministry together with us work hand in glove. The LTDC’s role is to create jobs while the government’s role is to formulate policy and give direction. Ours is to create a conducive environment for tourism to boom and to ensure that we create a viable market for tourism and work hand in hand with private sector players. We create and help generate financial assistance through the corporate sectors, banks, donors, so on, to ensure we create strategic partnerships for tourism players so that in turn they can employ Basotho and be able to improve the livelihoods of our people through the tourism sub sector.

LT: In all these things you have just mentioned above, are there any milestones that the LTDC has achieved in terms of improvement and promotion of Lesotho’s tourism?

Thoola: We are proud to say we have achieved quite a number of milestones. Because for our tourism to be strong, we place emphasis on product development. We need to get our tourism products and funds to be at the right places. So, we have identified some attraction sites where we have even conducted feasibility studies. I can mention Letša la Letsie, Semonkong, Sani Top etc. These are places which I can say, we are now looking for tourism investors to come and invest in, or to continue with what we have already started. A good example is Semonkong where we have built the Maletsunyane Waterfalls visitor comfort facility, which we have already leased out to a private operator.

We have also developed a National Tourism Master Plan in which all the tourism policy legal frameworks are. We have also been able to develop the Lesotho Tourism Position Strategy, Communication Strategy and Lesotho Communication Brand, which distinguish Lesotho from its competitors. We have built a brand; that is an image that differentiates Lesotho from the rest of the world. In that brand we have our slogan which is the Kingdom in the Sky.

We need our tourism to be at a high-quality level especially in the accommodation department…We have therefore created what we call star grading program where the accommodation facilities will get rated according to their standards as a way of marketing themselves. We have seen a mushrooming of guest houses because we have been able to create a system that improves their marketing and quality levels.

LT: Just as a follow up to what you have been saying, yes there are milestones that you have just pointed out, but can we really say you have executed your mandate in terms of marketing Lesotho? There are perceptions that the LTDC has been resting on its laurels when it comes to marketing Lesotho to the rest of the world because the country has never gotten anywhere to achieving its potential in this sector?

Thoola: We are not where we want to be, but I must say that we have tried because before the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, we used to record about 1.2 million arrivals into our country. However, the numbers dropped because of Covid-19. But there were still some challenges that hindered us. At the same time, we are competing with the giants. We’re surrounded by South Africa, so we are competing with that country. All the same, we need to take the advantage of that because we are strategically located within South Africa, therefore we must take advantage by conveying our message to the Free State, Gauteng, KZN, Eastern Cape provinces because they are close by.

When we do market the country, we use three pillars. These being the domestic tourism drive wherein our duty is to educate, encourage Basotho to travel within the country and most importantly to spend their money at the host communities because that means jobs are created and that in turn improves the lives of the host community. I am proud to say that Covid-19 taught us that domestic tourism is important because it was then that we started to see Basotho beginning to appreciate tourism. Every weekend you would see different hiking clubs, 4X4 enthusiasts and the camp sites. You have seen recreational parks mushrooming.

The second pillar is promotion of Lesotho in the region. More than 90 percent of our tourists come from South Africa; because of self-drive they manage to come. South Africa is an important market for us, meaning we need to have aggressive marketing strategies in South Africa. We need to be there, we need to tell our story there, there is an easy market. We just need to convince and partner with South African tour operators for them to bring tourists into Lesotho.

The last pillar is the promotion and marketing of Lesotho internationally. You will agree with me that Lesotho is not known. We need to educate international tour operators, and to create strategic partnerships with destination marketing organizations so that they sell Lesotho on our behalf.

Our major challenges in all these, is that we are operating on a zero budget and marketing is very expensive. For us to convey our message effectively and efficiently, we need a good budget so that we don’t only rely on digital marketing and social media platforms. Other promotional marketing methods – we are unable to apply – because there is no budget.

Unfortunately, with government tourism was never a priority thus it has not been given the justice it deserves. For tourism to thrive it means government must inject a lot of money and make sure there is a marketing budget. Like I said, we are competing with the Free State province and remember our tourism offerings are the same as the Free State’s. The culture and heritage are almost the same. So they can convey the Basotho message more than us because they have the budget.  It is thus not possible to market Lesotho fiercely because there is no budget.

LT: With this new government in power now, has there been any change in terms of support?

Thoola: We do have a supportive minister and principal secretary who have tried to see how we can get a budget that will enable us to compete with countries that invest a lot of money into marketing and promotion of their tourism destinations. We are also trying to work with the private sector. We already have partners like the Tour Operators Association of Lesotho, Lesotho hotels and Hospitality Association, and other associations that we work together with. I am talking about a budget of marketing Lesotho locally, regionally, and internationally. This issue of a minimal budget creates the perception in people’s minds that the LTDC is not doing enough.

LT: What needs to be done to overcome all obstacles to increased tourism?

Thoola:    We need to also talk about product development because we can’t just market on the natural beauty of the country, rich culture and the heritage, mountain sceneries, waterfalls, and man-made dams like the Katse Dam. We need to have proper products specific to all these tourism sites. I have mentioned already that we need to develop exclusive products because once we have done that, that’s when tourists will come and spent some time here.

Development products are activities that can keep tourists at the same place for some time. There should be enough activities which a tourist can engage in for about three days. We also need government support in the form of different ministries playing their role in tourism development. We need access to tourist destinations, meaning there should be proper roads. Government should be able to help us in the construction of proper tarred roads. We urge the government to see the importance of the access roads.

There should also be enough hotels, and proper accommodation with enough activities and amenities to keep tourists for long.

We end up losing potential tourists because government has not played its part. The other challenge is the lack of hospitality and tourism technical skills, so we need capacity building. But there are already a number of programs lined up to help equip our tourism private sector with enough skills.

We are working on creating accreditation systems and ensuring there are proper quality control measures for the sake of safety for the tourists. We have developed the guidelines of hiking, tour operation and tour guiding and we are now working on the accreditation systems.

We are grateful that our campaign of visit Lesotho first is now taking traction and Basotho have started travelling within the country.

We also have a program called home stays, this is where we are saying to Basotho our tourists need to experience the authentic lifestyle of Basotho. We want to give them first time experience of Basotho lifestyles. Your old rondavel houses, clean them nicely and host tourists in them. That way you will be making money.

We believe that there should be what is called an inter-ministerial integration committee that can help as well, where ministries plan together their priorities for a certain year. They will plan together so that when developments are made every ministry is involved. That could help us to achieve a lot because, for tourism to flourish, there are so many players who must play their part behind the scenes.

LT: Take us through the LTDC’s latest tourism related venture with the Alliance Insurance Company.

Thoola: In our strategic plan, we have strategic partnerships. This is where we need to strike partnerships with the private sector, public sector, and corporate sector. Alliance approached us and presented their idea of promoting domestic tourism in celebration of their 30 years anniversary. They said that they wanted to partner with us to promote domestic tourism with their product called Ke Lepeng. It is to instill pride in Basotho, to remember our roots as a nation, that we must travel throughout Lesotho first before we go to other countries. We found that their proposal aligned very well with our first pillar, which is the promotion of domestic tourism. And we started with the construction of landmark frames at the tourism attraction sides. We had our launch a fortnight ago at Qiloane, Thaba Bosiu. Our partnership with Alliance has helped us take a step forward and we are looking for many more to come. We are also appealing to other corporate sector potential partners to come on board to promote Lesotho as a unique tourism destination. Not only should the LTDC be left to promote Lesotho, we need the entire Basotho nation to come on board.

LT: What would have been the negative impact caused by the closure of Afriski Mountain Resort?

Thoola: We sell our country by our altitude, with snow as our unique sale preposition. It is our special feature which we use when selling Lesotho and we are fortunate to have Afriski. Of course, there were some issues, but we are glad to see that they have been resolved and they are now back in business. Winter is our peak season where we get many visitors and most of them go to Afriski. Of course, they won’t be operating at full capacity but most of their activities will still be there. They will not be renting their skiing equipment this year, but on the positive side this can be an opportunity for Basotho who have such equipment. They can lend out such equipment and create jobs because at the end of the day, it’s all about creating jobs. There are also many Basotho who have worked there who can be instructors and teach people how to ski. We are grateful that Afriski is back in business.

If that facility gets closed it means job losses because it has hired many Basotho and that would be bad. The percentage that Afriski contributes to the economic growth will be lost. Also, remember that Afriski plays an important part in promoting Lesotho as a tourism destination in terms of providing skiing activities. Afriski is the only ski resort in Africa, so if we lose it, it means we lose our position status in skiing. Afriski puts Lesotho on them map in terms of providing skiing activities. If it closes down it means all those opportunities will be gone.

 LT: What is the LTDC doing to ensure that locals stop mistreating tourists and that traffic police stop demanding bribes from them?

Thoola: Such are challenges that will cost this country because we will lose so much money as tourists will shun visiting our country. That destroys the reputation of Lesotho as a nation, as a sovereign state. That behaviour will lead to potential investors having second thoughts about investing in our country. There is the other issue of herd-boys who also mistreat tourists. Some even attack them and vandalize their property. In the same manner, that destroys the reputation of the country. But we have tried to engage the communities with their chiefs and local government councilors, to sensitize and capacitate them on the importance of the tourists. We have a memorandum of understanding with the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS), where we are also teaching police the importance of welcoming tourists with warmth. Try as much as we can to protect them because if we continue to mistreat them, they will go away and the country will lose on money that could have been collected from such tourists. We have a police unit at the department of tourism and once such information comes to our attention, we report it to them for investigation. We also try to disseminate messages through our social media platforms and create awareness of the do’s and don’ts in terms of the treatment of tourists. But like I have already said, all these things without financial support are not easy to achieve. We hope that this new government will start to look at tourism with a different eye. We have gained massive support from our minister and the principal secretary, and we hope that tourism will get the justice it deserves.