Situated half-way between Durban and Johannesburg and bordering the Free State and Mpumalanga provinces, Newcastle in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, is heading for a tourism-led economic recovery.
It is all down to the various urgent interventions, initiatives and projects that local leaders are planning which are designed to attract new visitors and increase the tourist spend.
They want to reposition Newcastle as a premier tourism destination with the focus on events, natural assets and cultural heritage.
Newcastle is the home to reggae star, Lucky Dube, disc jockey DJ Sihle and soccer players Helman Mkhelele and Deli Mbatha.
The town has seen an increase in township hospitality businesses, which provide jobs and a variety of experiences for visitors, said the Amajuba district mayor, Dr Musa Ngubane.
However, during the earlier stages of the lockdown, the town’s tourism sector lost more than R115-million, the mayor recalled.
The district was adjusting to the new travel patterns now that holidaymakers are looking for outdoor experiences and placing a higher emphasis on safety.
Outdoor sports like golfing, hiking, fly-fishing, motor sports, birdwatching, boating, are being encouraged.
“We have short and medium-term interventions, including renovating and diversifying the tourism offerings at Balele Game Park and revamping the Emadlangeni Municipality Tourism Information Centre,” the mayor explained.
The regional airport in Newcastle has been upgraded and will be developed into a Techno Hub, presenting an ideal opportunity for attracting investment, while also creating jobs.
There is also talk of a multi-million hotel and other accommodation outlets on the cards, although Dr Ngubane said these negotiations were not yet finalised.
The revised Amajuba Tourism Strategy aims to reset Newcastle’s tourism identity and brand. It is envisaged that it will become a blueprint for collaboration between government and industry, as both share the same vision: to make Newcastle a premier visitor destination.
“We found it was critical to engage the private sector. We have some exciting projects in the pipeline which will help to build the sector as the critical location of the town allows us to explore various options,” Ngubane said.
Samkelisiwe Yende, speaker of the Newcastle Municipality, said the key to tourism’s recovery was to broaden the region’s marketing strategy.
“As a municipality, we are planning a video to promote what Newcastle can offer. While Newcastle is not your traditional tourist destination, it does attract a lot of business tourism,” she said.
Ongoing investment in tourism was integral to building a thriving, diverse and robust economy to future-proof Newcastle to withstand disruptions such as COVID-19, she said.
Visiting business people generally took time out for leisure activities in the area, thereby boosting tourism to the town. Considering the current social distancing rules, many were now turning to outdoor activities.
Hiking expert and head of Hikeobics, Tsebiso Maruping confirmed that with lockdown regulations in place, there had been an increased demand for outdoor activities, especially among visiting businessmen.
“People don’t want to be cooped in their homes. They want to go outdoors, so hiking gives them that mental stimulation,” said Maruping who led a hike through the mountains on Friday morning with Gagasi FM disc jockeys, Khulekani Mbambo and Zisto Mhlongo.
“Smaller groups or family-orientated groupings are encouraged to prevent and curb the spread of the virus. Hiking has minimal contact to the next person as long as a safe distance is kept,” she said.
After a morning hike, the mayor and the DJs took to the greens to demonstrate their golfing skills, with the rolling mountains providing the perfect backdrop.