Road to Recovery: Local Economic Development, Tourism and Open for Business

By Leah Moodaley

LOCAL ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Knysna Municipality’s Local Economic Development (LED) Manager, Ilse van Schalkwyk, sits down to share
an economic perspective on the Knysna Inferno, focusing not only on the impact, but also on the opportunities which lie ahead.

“As part of managing economic development, I look after business investments and data and research for the municipality,” explains Ilse. When the fire started, all municipal units were drawn into various teams according to their roles, skills and areas of responsibility.

However, it quickly became clear that this task would require all municipal staff to step out of their day-today
jobs and exceed the bounds of their contractual job descriptions. Ilse begins by saying that nothing could
have prepared the town for the magnitude of what had taken place. “We all worked from a joint operations
command centre (JOC) and it was literally all hands on deck. You had your emergency services staff dealing
with the response activities, but suddenly relief aid became a priority and we all needed to step up to the
plate and put the necessary systems in place. We had staff going above and beyond their usual duties to help
everyone in need. We had lawyers handing out water. We had economists assisting in relief centres. It was a
true reflection of public service.”

One of Ilse’s core competencies is managing business processes and systems. She explains that the LED unit was required to fill the ‘demand gap’, in other words, to collect data on who needed what in terms of relief aid. “Over and above our standard municipal functions, we now had to shift our priorities in order to take on the disaster recovery strategy.” Additional projects which have now been prioritised, include the restoration and rebuilding of infrastructure and housing.

Business Retention and Expansion is another work group that falls within Ilse’s portfolio of work, and includes tourism.

 

TOURISM

As part of the Business Retention and Expansion work group, a task team including Wesgro, Knysna Tourism and Knysna Accommodation Association, amongst others, was established. “We’ve lost about 500 tourism beds, and because Knysna is a tourism town, this poses a challenge.” Ilse adds that many of the residents affected by the fire are likely to either sell their erven to developers or rebuild and establish Airbnb facilities.

Owing to the loss of 16 000 hectares of forest and plantation, many outdoor tourism packages have been affected. Fortunately, most businesses have quickly adapted and reviewed their offerings.

If ever there was a most suitable time for such a disaster to strike, June may have been it. Community members felt that for this to happen in winter was tragic, as winter is set aside for family dinners and nights huddled indoors. School learners may have felt it unfair that this happened during their school holiday. However, from a tourism perspective, the timing could have been much worse. According to Ilse, if the disaster happened in the summer months, accommodation would have been a major problem as Knysna experiences an occupancy rate of 80%
in season. After the fires, guest houses, holiday homes and local hotels became a temporary home to many of the affected residents. This would have been a challenge during summer. By November, the accommodation facilities now offering lodging must be vacated in order to accommodate tourists and holiday home owners.

Ilse explains that the Knysna population doubles over the festive season. In essence, this means that the various cluster workgroups have limited time to provide viable solutions to affected residents. Coordination of all relief
activities is therefore vital.

Apart from instilling a renewed sense of service in the heart of the community, more silver linings have been made visible. “The disaster will be a major injection for the construction sector. Knysna experienced its construction boom from 2004 to 2007, after which it stabilised. With the coming of the “New Knysna” as we are calling it, we’re looking at building better, cleaner and greener,” says Ilse confidently.

Ilse explains that the disaster has affected employment, but not in the sense that many people may think. One hundred and thirty-four businesses in the Knysna municipal area have been adversely affected according to current
incident reports, but many of these businesses have the option to rent space elsewhere. A major portion of the workforce that was affected are those linked to housekeeping and household income. “For instance, gardeners, cleaners, and hospitality sector workers have been affected negatively,” explains Ilse. Most of these people don’t have access to funds such as an unemployment insurance fund. The decrease in household disposable income has a ripple effect on the local economy. In addition, the Department of Labour, together with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), has been called on to assist affected businesses with wage aid until they will be able to pay their staff again.

Another issue uncovered is that government aid is not geared towards assisting the middle class, many of whom had lost their homes. Relief management faces an uncharted task of providing fair and equal assistance to all despite  different living standards across income groups. “As a municipality, we are now looking at different models and best case practices to assist people in ways they can appreciate.”

According to Ilse, a key takeaway from this experience is that despite the odds, Knysna is resilient and people are willing to rebuild. “The most important piece of advice I can give people is to insure your business. Insure your home.”

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

Vice Chair of the Knysna Tourism Board and owner of two guesthouses in the Knysna area, Ypie Kingma, was invited to the JOC to provide regular feedback from a tourism perspective. “Within days of the fire starting, the Tourism Board had already been approached by Alan Winde the WCG Minister of Economic Opportunities, to assess the extent of the devastation,” explains Ypie. The Board’s Executive sat down with Minister Winde, Linda Pampallis CEO of Thompson’s Africa, and Margie Whitehouse CMO of South African Tourism, to discuss the impact of the disaster on tourism across the region, as well as on the town specifically. Ypie explains that the effect was evident in that close to 30 accommodation facilities had been affected and guests were forced to relocate elsewhere.

Among the establishments affected were the Knysna Hollow and Blackwaters River Lodge. Other tourist  attractions destroyed include the Featherbed Nature Reserve and Timber Village. Blackwaters River Lodge, Featherbed Nature Reserve, and Timber Village have rescheduled all bookings accordingly and are on the road to reconstruction. The most important thing for the tourism industry is to get a strong message out there that Knysna is still open for business.