When they saw the ramshackle structure in the middle of nowhere in the southwest corner of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, other operators saw no merit in tendering. It was 2004, and SANParks (South African National Parks) could find no one to manage the property, recently acquired as part of a land claim by the local Mier and ǂKhomani San communities.
In stepped Transfrontier Parks Destinations (TFPD), a company of social entrepreneurs – and the rest, as they say, is history.
“We’re taking places on the verge of closure, or never opened, and turning them into something significant,” says TFPD Co-founder and CEO, Glynn O’Leary, based at the company’s head office in Cape Town. “What we do brings the attention of others to the area.”
The abandoned lodge in the Kgalagadi is today the iconic !Xaus Lodge, TFPD’s flagship management property. Tourists come from all over the world, as well as locally, for the unique experience – particularly tracking with the Bushmen in the Kgalagadi’s magnificent red dunes – that !Xaus Lodge offers. In 2010, the lodge won the Imvelo Award for Responsible Tourism in the ‘Best Practice-Economic Impact’ category and in 2016 the prestigious African Responsible Tourism Awards in the category ‘Best for Poverty Reduction’. In November 2016, !Xaus Lodge was awarded silver in the 2016 World Responsible Tourism Awards category ‘Poverty Reduction and Inclusion’’.
!Xaus Lodge, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Promoting responsible tourism wherever it operates, TFPD now manages 12 community-owned properties sited in or adjacent to Transfrontier Conservation Areas in Southern Africa, familiarly known as ‘peace parks’ – from the Kgalagadi in the West, to the Drakensberg, through Limpopo Province and to the edge of Kruger National Park.
The unique TFPD model is gaining ground – recognised as a model to replicate. This has led to constant approaches from community owners of tourism properties that wish to be included in the TFPD portfolio.“To partner with communities to commercialise their tourism assets” is TFPD’s mission. TFPD enters into management agreements with rural communities to manage, operate and market their tourism assets, giving those assets greater exposure and enhanced service and infrastructure. Neither nature nor the dignity of the local people is compromised in this process. Since all possible materials at the lodges are sourced locally and staff are drawn from the community, the local area benefits immensely. Community members employed at these properties are also given training in ecotourism and the hospitality industries, as well as specialist training such as field guiding.
“We are not in the ‘pity’ tourism business,” O’Leary says. “We are making sure that our lodges are the equivalent of any 3 or 4- star lodge in Southern Africa. We don’t want staff to leave, but if they do, they need to have the skills to work in any equivalent operation.”
To ensure this equivalence, TFPD facilitates state and donor funding to its community partners.
“We facilitate the flow of funds to critical community projects,” says Barry Gray, TFPD’s Co-Founder and Director of Finance and Human Resources. “We also serve as a reliable vehicle for government, banks and donors to use to ensure that the funding they provide is invested according to the business plan.”
What distinguishes TFPD’s management model is the degree to which it engages its community partners, and the perpetual goal to equalise the partnership.
“We have dual intention” says Gray, “to run a successful business out of the community assets, and, equally critical, to work in true partnership with the communities. We try to truly engage with the community owners, and to enhance their understanding of what ownership really means – such as taking full responsibility for what you own, taking care and maintaining it, taking pride in it, and growing it for and into the future. Given the history of this country, with many having been denied ownership and other basic rights in the past, this is a constant challenge.
“It’s an evolving process. We have to receive as much as we give our partners. The community asset is not just bricks and mortar,” he adds. “It’s the people, and their culture, that goes with it. We have to engage with that culture.”
Due to its product range, TFPD can maximise its return on marketing diverse experiences that few tourists will manage to complete in a single visit. The TFPD-managed properties offer clients wilderness and cultural experiences in Southern Africa that will take them on a journey to the far reaches of the country and into its Transfrontier Parks – through the arid regions of the Kalahari Desert and encounters with its Bushmen inhabitants, to the highest accommodation in the Drakensberg Mountains, to the bushveld and incredible cultural richness of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area.
TFPD is evolving a ground-breaking ecotourism model that truly and deeply engages the communities it works with. One of its strengths is that while maintaining the initial vision of a successful company paired with sincere community partnership and upliftment, it has the flexibility to improve or adjust the model as necessary.
“We embarked on this journey of ‘partnering with communities to commercialise their tourism assets’ as a means of creating sustainable job opportunities and economic activity in what are generally poor rural communities”, says O’Leary.
“Whilst the potential for commercial viability and a bankable contract is essential, it’s not just about the agreement”, he adds. “We have to be willing to listen to communities and we all have to benefit fairly.”
Sustaining this vision is key to the original founders and as a result a formal Founders’ Charter has been drafted.