'They're hurting tourism': Covid-19 blocks visitors from WCape snow

Cold front has many keeping a snow-cial distance

14 June 2020 - 00:00 By BOBBY JORDAN
Snow on the Swaarmoed Pass in Ceres near the Matroosberg Nature Reserve, 135km from Cape Town, brought young and old out to play this week, but visitors were turned away from the area.
Snow on the Swaarmoed Pass in Ceres near the Matroosberg Nature Reserve, 135km from Cape Town, brought young and old out to play this week, but visitors were turned away from the area.
Image: Esa Alexander

The first pictures showed a winter fairytale: a bicycle stencilled in the snow, snow angels in an apple orchard, a group of gogos pelting each other with handfuls of snow outside Ceres.

But the shadow of the coronavirus this week obliterated SA's brief respite from the lockdown blues as police blocked people from going to see the snow.

Hours after the Western Cape's heaviest snowfall in years, police on Thursday turned visitors away outside Ceres, the region's "snow tourism" capital. The same happened on Friday.

Frustrated travellers returned home to vent their anger on social media, though some tried to outflank police roadblocks to reach much-advertised snow "hotspots".

The government responded by demanding that the public adhere to travel restrictions on recreational movement into coronavirus-hit municipalities, and tourism authorities admonished businesses for bending lockdown rules.

The result was that, instead of providing an escape for cooped-up South Africans, the biggest winter storm of 2020 turned out to be a damp squib, highlighting the country's frustrations under the lockdown.

Worse, persistent rain at lower altitudes caused widespread flooding and misery for many people, with informal settlements in low-lying or wetland areas again the most affected. In Cape Town these areas included Phola Park, Goliath Estate, Langa, Masiphumelele, Khayelitsha and Philippi. Some people also suffered power outages.

The cold front, which hit on Tuesday night, moved deep into the interior, dropping snow across a broad swathe of mountains ringing the escarpment, including Sutherland in the Northern Cape and the southern Drakensberg.

The deluge did at least alleviate some of the Western Cape's water woes, with Cape Town's dams receiving a welcome influx of fresh water.

The thickest snow cover in years was irresistible to locals and those few visitors who made it to Ceres.
The thickest snow cover in years was irresistible to locals and those few visitors who made it to Ceres.
Image: Esa Alexander

However, this was cold comfort for those caught up in Thursday's roadblock drama in the Witzenberg municipality, which includes Ceres and surrounding smaller towns.

"I think it is an awful and terrible situation for the town itself," Angelique le Roux, chair of Witzenberg & Ceres Tourism, told the Sunday Times. "They are hurting tourism by not letting people come through the town. The way the [Witzenberg] municipality has gone about the situation is a terrible disgrace."

She accused local authorities of misinterpreting level 3 lockdown regulations, which she said allow people to cross municipal boundaries to visit private nature reserves.

At the centre of this week's snow standoff in the Western Cape was a well-known snow "resort", Matroosberg Private Nature Reserve, which had been preparing for the usual influx of snow-seekers in 4x4 vehicles.

Resort manager Didi de Kock said preventing snow tourism highlights the irrational nature of lockdown restrictions.

"Ceres is a winter destination and so many businesses rely on this business, from garages to takeaway shops," De Kock said.

"We have zero income. Must I just close it down and fire all the people?"

Would-be visitors vented their frustrations on the resort's Facebook page: "I need normal - my kids NEED normal," said a post from Nikki Pretorius.

"Our 'lockdown' has already been declared unconstitutional. For the sake of MY family's mental health, we need to do something that is good for us without affecting the health of others.

"Playing in the snow, in an isolated area, without risking the wellbeing of others, seems OK to me. I'm doing what is OK for me."

In response, another frustrated Matroosberg visitor said: "I wouldn't risk it."

The resort itself has come under fire in recent years for bending the rules with respect to its 4x4 visitors, who historically have gained access to the snowy upper slopes of the Matroosberg via a stretch of state land and a parcel belonging to the resort's neighbour.

The neighbour, Gielie Geldenhuys, this week said the matter is being addressed. De Kock said her 4x4 guests would now be directed to another mountain area.

The Western Cape government this week appealed to the public not to cross municipal boundaries to view the snow, given the current lockdown restrictions.

The Witzenberg municipality issued a separate cautionary note: "We hereby advise all residents and possibly visitors to Witzenberg area for snow watching, that movement is still restricted under level 3 of the national lockdown regulations as published in the Disaster Management Act 2002."

in numbers

• 62, 000 Covid-19 cases in SA

• 39,159 cases in the Western Cape

• 381 cases in the Witzenberg municipal district

Not all private reserves have reopened under level 3 restrictions.

Tiffindell in Barkly East, another popular snow destination and winter ski resort, said its facilities were closed this week. 

In a note on its website, Aquila Private Game Reserve & Spa near Touwsrivier said it is closed to tourist bookings, as per the regulations.

Tourism has been particularly hard hit by the lockdown, with a recent study by Stellenbosch University estimating a potential loss of R195.5bn in tourist-related expenditure in 2020, compared with a total tourism expenditure of R273.2bn in 2018.

National department of tourism spokesperson Blessing Manale called for businesses to comply with restrictions while stakeholders discuss ways to open more tourism subsectors under level 3.