South Africa

PHOTO ESSAY

Tiffindell Blues: Tourist town struggles through lockdown

A snow-covered road leading to the Tiffindell Ski Resort in Rhodes, Eastern Cape. The Western and Eastern Cape were recently blanketed with the first snowfall for 2020, but the resort remains closed to tourists. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Exciting and electrifying are some of the words that can be used to describe the atmosphere at the Tiffindell Ski Resort in Rhodes, Eastern Cape, during peak season when both local and international holidaymakers, and skiers, make their way to the snow-capped mountains to get in on the snow action. Not so this season, thanks to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tiffindell is situated high in the mountains above the village of Rhodes in the Eastern Cape. Normally, when winter descends and the snow begins to fall, the village wakes from its slumber and a festival atmosphere takes over. But because of the Covid-19 outbreak and the institution of a lockdown which has placed restrictions on travel and tourism, this weekend’s drop in the mercury levels did not bring the usual festivities to the village.

Two boys stand in the snow on a farm in Rhodes, Eastern Cape, South Africa, 12 June 2020. The Western and Eastern Cape were recently blanketed with the first South African snowfall for 2020. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

At the beginning of June 2020 South Africa moved to lockdown alert Level 3. 

Under this level, all hotels and establishments can operate only if they are providing accommodation for people travelling for business. According to the current regulations, no accommodation establishments or attractions are allowed to open for leisure purposes.

Sheep herdsmen on a farm in Rhodes. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Tiffindell Ski Resort is South Africa’s only ski and snowboarding resort, and is situated on the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg in the Eastern Cape. During the period June to August, the resort is usually a sought-after destination for snow sports enthusiasts from all over the world.

The desolate Tiffindell Ski Resort in Rhodes, Eastern Cape, closed to tourists because of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Things are different this year. The resort is quiet. Chalets are empty, there has been no income for the past few months and staff are worried about their job security. 

Snow maker Mike Visser opens the blinds in an empty restaurant at the Tiffindell Ski Resort. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“We have prepped really hard for the current winter season. It’s devastating that we are not able to open and operate, especially since the weather is so favourable for snowmaking. As employees of the company, we all feel really worried about job security. It is definitely a blow if we are not going to open,” said Mike Visser, snowmaker at Tiffindell.

During peak periods, the resort houses 150 guests and around 350 day visitors. 

Mike Visser makes a maintenance check in the heating room at the Tiffindell Resort. It is imperative to keep the heating on to avoid the pipes freezing. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Skiers from all over the world come to partake in the Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS, International Skiing Federation) competition. This year’s bookings had to be carried over for the next ski season and the future looks grim.

Previous statistics show Tiffindell contributes about 80% to the local economy. Homeowners in Rhodes rent their houses out to holidaymakers, but now, demand is non-existent.

Ski boots remain unused in the ski hire shop at the Tiffindell Ski Resort. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“Tiffindell makes use of state of the art equipment to generate snow. It is a very costly affair. June to August is our peak period and when we have natural snow, there is a huge increase in visitors. We increase our staff capacity to deal with the influx of visitors. We just experienced our first snowfall for the year, but it is sad that the resort remains empty. I currently can only afford to put two staff members on duty. The rest, including myself, is on unpaid leave,” said resort manager Maarten Den Heyer.

While the future remains bleak for the town of Rhodes and other tourist-related businesses, Den Heyer is optimistic and has implemented safety precautions while he waits to be given the green light to accept guests. 

Resort manager Maarten den Heyer checks a pair of skis at the Tiffindell Ski Resort. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“I did a whole training exercise with my team. I gave them an in-depth explanation of the virus. We don’t really know what it is but we have to arm ourselves with knowledge for the safety of our guests and ourselves. We are currently waiting for our masks to arrive from Johannesburg and still face the challenge of sanitising the rooms and chalets. But this will only be put in place once we move to level 2,” concluded Den Heyer.

A frozen pond at the shuttered ski resort. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Owner of the Rubicon resort, Elisma Mostert has diversified to survive.

 “We are losing income and are having to find other ways to survive,” Mostert said. She has started operating a small convenience store, selling essential items but business is slow, “but better than nothing”. 

A desolate Tiffindell Ski Resort, which remains closed to tourists.
(Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

A snow-covered road leading to the Tiffindell Ski Resort. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The South African tourism sector is likely to be hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to News24, the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), told Parliament recently that it predicts about 600,000 direct tourism jobs will be lost in 2020 alone if the industry is not allowed to open up – even with a phased-in approach – as soon as possible. DM

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