CAPE OF STORMS
Western Cape hospitality and tourism industry still counting the ‘massive’ cost of mudslides and flooding
It’s been a hellish winter for the Western Cape province after a series of storms have dealt heavy blows to households and businesses. The tourism sector is counting the cost and rebuilding, ahead of the festive season.
The devastating weather that tore through the Western Cape a week ago pummelled the tourism and hospitality sector over one of the busiest long weekends of the year for travellers.
The Heritage Day weekend storm brought flooding and mudslides that ripped out bridges and changed the course of rivers, submerged homes and cut communities off from the outside world. Authorities are still counting the cost to the local economy, but it is clear that tourism is one of the most seriously affected sectors in the Western Cape, as clean-up efforts continue.
Read in Daily Maverick: “Downpours and gales wreak havoc across Western Cape over the heritage weekend”
‘Hundreds of millions of rands’
The storm pulverised roads, toppled trees, gutted homes and businesses and left a sodden, muddy scar of devastation from Botrivier to Bredasdorp, Montagu to Mitchells Plain. Speaking to Daily Maverick on Wednesday, Tourism Minister Patricia de Lille described the scale of the damage as “massive”.
“It’s public knowledge that the tourism sector was the worst affected by Covid-19, and the sector is just busy recovering now – especially our domestic sector. It is clear that the heavy rains resulted in hundreds of millions of rands in damages. People’s homes are damaged and destroyed. The agricultural sector also suffered huge losses that are estimated, at this stage, at more than R1-billion,” De Lille said.
Both De Lille and Western Cape Finance and Economic Opportunities MEC, Mireille Wenger told Daily Maverick that it is still too early to make an estimation on the cost of the damage to the tourism and hospitality sector. However, the Western Cape government is conducting a survey to assess the impact of the storm, which De Lille said would be finalised by the end of this week.
Preliminary findings of the survey indicate that, while 91% of responses were received from private businesses, “it is clear that state-owned attractions such as parks, botanical gardens, resorts and camping sites have also been affected,” Wenger said. According to the survey findings, the five most affected towns are Franschhoek, Kleinmond, Hermanus, Betty’s Bay and McGregor.
The affected properties are predominantly accommodation establishments (38%), restaurants, bars and cafés (19%), wine tourism attractions (8%), trail networks (6%) and retail stores (6%).
The preliminary findings show that a shocking 63% of respondents were forced to close their businesses temporarily.
“The impact seems to have been on fences, roads, bridges, access roads to farms, damage to trails and walkways and some municipal assets. Resorts and caravan parks have also reported some major damage … What I’ve seen so far is that people are busy with clean-up operations in most affected areas. Where infrastructure has been damaged in communities like Botrivier, Caledon, Riviersonderend, Hermanus, De Doorns, Montagu and Ladismith, they will also need some critical support in trying to deal with the impact – especially on infrastructure,” De Lille said.
De Lille said the Department of Tourism had not intervened at this stage because no national state of disaster was declared, nor had the province declared a state of disaster.
The Western Cape government has requested a state of disaster declaration from the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC) to unlock about R700-million in funding to repair flood damage caused by previous winter storms in May and June. Wouter Kriel, spokesperson for the local government MEC Anton Bredell, said once damage assessments for the Heritage Day weekend storm – as well as the coastal storm surges experienced earlier in September – have been completed, the provincial government will present it to the NDMC to also be considered for a disaster declaration.
“It is unclear at this stage if [all four] will be considered in isolation or as one large severe event for the Western Cape. Also, there are no guarantees or timeframes on whether and when we will receive any funding from the national government. This will influence our ability and speed in restoring the damages, especially to large critical infrastructure such as roads and bridges,” Kriel said.
De Lille said the Tourism Department would wait for the report from the provincial government to assess the economic blow to the tourism industry.
“Our focus from a national level will be on the publicly owned tourism facilities … and also understanding that privately owned properties have insurance for such eventualities. But I do know that there might be some small and medium-sized enterprises that are not covered by insurance,” she said.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Cape of Storms
A blow to businesses
The Cape Winelands was among the hardest hit districts in the province, with Franschhoek, McGregor and Montagu suffering significant damage. When Daily Maverick visited Franschhoek on Wednesday, clean-up operations were in full swing. Municipal workers were seen shovelling mud and debris, and bulldozers trudged along the main road to scoop up the remains.
The Franschhoek Tourism Association said: “Damages will run into hundreds of millions with hotels, guest houses and restaurants that were hardest hit with mudslides and flooding. Top-end properties like Last Word will only reopen after the season and La Residence, one of Franschhoek’s iconic hotels, will be closed until December. Arkeste Restaurant, Col’Cacchio and Terbodore Coffee are still closed while renovating, cleaning and counting the cost of the damage and loss of revenue.”
The Rickety Bridge tram tracks were also damaged during the flooding, affecting the Franschhoek Wine Tram. The Franschhoek Tourism office itself lost all of its office equipment and furniture in a mudslide which tore through the building.
The extent of the damage at the five-star boutique hotel in Franschhoek, Last Word, on the town’s main road, is difficult to comprehend. Of the hotel’s 10 rooms, four ground-floor suites were soiled with mud and debris to knee height. Two exterior boundary walls at the back of the property were knocked over by the force of the water that surged down the mountainside. When Daily Maverick visited the hotel on Wednesday morning, workers had already shovelled six tonnes of soil off the premises.
The Last Word had already suffered extensive damage during the winter storm in June this year, forcing it to shut its doors for renovations and setting it back about R7-million in damages, the hotel’s brand director, Steve Robertson, told Daily Maverick. After being closed for three months, it was due to reopen on 1 October, with bookings lined up well into the festive season.
But Last Word’s plan to reopen on schedule was shattered by the Heritage Day weekend storm, which has caused an estimated R10-million in damages according to Robertson.
The hotel has once again been forced to shut its doors, and will likely reopen only in March 2024 – meaning it will miss the entire festive season.
“We have to rebuild. We have five hotels – two in safari camps and three in Cape Town. This is our flagship hotel in Cape Town and it’s by far the busiest. It almost supports the others in a way. We need this hotel to work – we have 10 local staff members here, so it’s their livelihood too,” Robertson said.
According to Robertson, the Franschhoek hotel turns around about R10-million a year, with the festive season making up around two-thirds of that (R6.5-million).
He said Last Word had requested assistance from the Cape Winelands District Municipality and had been trying to set up meetings with council officials, to no avail.
“It’s going to happen every year, and the water just has nowhere to go. We’re going to have to build a wall out front – we’re not allowed to because it’s council land, but if we don’t, how do we defend ourselves?” he asked.
Many roads in the province were severely damaged, affecting mobility and impacting tourism as travellers were forced to take long detours. Impassable stretches of highway – such as the N2 outside Botrivier – could take weeks to repair, depending on which tier of government is responsible and how quickly funds can be reprioritised.
Kriel was unable to provide details on when this stretch of the N2 could be reopened, saying it was “out of the province’s hands” and is the responsibility of South African National Roads Agency.
“But we do understand that it’s not going to be fixed tomorrow. And we’ll likely be involved in finding short-term solutions like how traffic will be rerouted,” he said.
Certain roads such as Chapman’s Peak and the Franschhoek Pass – which are both currently closed – are tourist attractions themselves. Cape Winelands District Municipality was unable to give an indication of when the Franschhoek Pass could reopen but said its closure was “concerning”.
Chapman’s Peak had about 100mm of rain on 24 and 25 September, causing mudslides in two locations.
“We have had two teams clearing at each location and have removed approximately 1,500m³ from the drive to date to the Coastal Park Landfill site. Once all the debris is removed, we will be able to assess any unseen damage that may result in further delays in opening the drive. The geotechnical engineer is assessing the risk of any further mudslides in both locations and pending his clearance the road may be reopened,” said Entilini Management, which manages and operates the scenic route.
Entilini Management said it anticipates that the road could reopen in the next few days.
The Western Cape government expects that the natural variability in the weather patterns of the province is likely to intensify because of climate change, causing flooding and droughts. Flooding has been flagged in the Western Cape Climate Change Response Strategy: Vision 2050 and its Implementation Plan as one of the many areas of concern.
Read in Daily Maverick: “The city that blows hot and cold – Cape Town’s flood-drought dichotomy explained”
Minister de Lille said it was becoming increasingly important to consolidate the tourism sector to be able to prepare, withstand and adapt to the effects of climate change.
“We need to overlay all our tourism decisions with the impact of climate change,” De Lille told Daily Maverick.
She said green tourism was the way forward.
“We have to begin to look at green tourism. We’ve already started, in the Department of Tourism, by making a green infrastructure incentive grant available to the private sector, and to small, medium and micro enterprises, and the value of the grant goes up to R1-million per project,” she said, adding that this programme assists businesses in becoming more sustainable by implementing energy and water-saving technologies. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.