A day at Afriski, Lesotho’s iconic skiing resort
LOUISA Olivier trudges in skiing boots as she positions herself for her first skiing class at Afriski Mountain Resort, in Butha-Buthe. She finds herself in the periphery of a line-up of other first-timers comprising of Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC) and International Business College (IBC) staffers.
The group has travelled from Lesotho’s capital Maseru, some 200 kilometres away to spend a day at the resort. While the distance is not too long, the mountainous terrain makes the journey longer as drivers must slowly navigate the treacherously steep curves on one of Africa’s most dangerous roads.
Louisa and husband Francois have travelled the longer journey from West Johannesburg in neighbouring South Africa on Monday morning for a snow experience at one of Africa’s two skiing resorts, Afriski. The second is the Tiffindell Ski Resort, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.
“Are you a photographer,” she asks this writer.
“A journalist,” this writer responds.
“I will stand next to you then. I’m Louisa. I’m here with my husband,” she says pointing at Francois who has apparently mastered some skiing skills and is enjoying himself on the slope.
Louisa and Francois are just part of several others who have travelled from all over South Africa for a snow experience.
“We always wanted to see snow, it’s a bucket list thing for us. When we started planning our vacation after the snow fall last week, we came across Afriski. Everyone we spoke to had a very good recommendation,” says Louisa.
On the slopes, like most first timers, she tumbles a few times. She accedes, skiing is far different from her usual sport; running. A few attempts under the watchful eye of an instructor, she excitedly starts sliding the slope with ease, much to the joy of her husband.
Louisa told the Weekender on Tuesday that she was overwhelmed by the experience.
“At first, I was overwhelmed by the sport but after a few lessons from the instructors I quickly got the hang of it. My husband and I can now say it’s one of the best experiences we’ve had and we will definitely visit again.”
Tucked in the north-east of Lesotho, in the Maluti mountains, Afriski sits a majestic 3200 metres above sea level where below zero temperatures are normal. The area receives snow fall for most parts of the year although the coldest temperatures are during the winter season, from May to August.
Established in 2000, Afriski has been one of Lesotho’s most iconic tourist attractions hosting an average of 27,000 foreign visitors annually. But the industry has been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Marketing manager Robyn Moon this week said despite the lockdown restrictions that have been imposed by the government intermittently since last year. The pandemic “has certainly thrown us a curveball and one we definitely did not expect to be circling for this long”.
Some tourists who had booked to visit the resort last year had to postpone their trips. This left the resort with just 10 percent of its normal occupancy.
And now when cross border travel has resumed, foreign guests must fork out about £43,75 (about M867.26) each for Covid-19 tests. This presents another challenge for large families from South Africa, the major source of business, as they must budget more. South African visitors make up 90 percent of the resort’s business.
While the resort management has always encouraged locals to visit the facility, significant numbers of locals have been registered this year. Diamond mine in the area also used the resort’s accommodation facilities for their staff who needed to implement social distancing protocols.
The management also developed “special interest weekends for locals” on occasions like Moshoeshoe Walk, which commemorates the life of the founder of the Basotho Nation, King Moshoeshoe I; King Letsie’s birthday and the Independence Day.
Discounted accommodation packages and low season rates throughout winter for Basotho nationals and wavering resort entrance fees has also seen an increase in local visitors, says Moon.
“We are expecting 50 percent in-house guests during the winter season, our South African guests are still excited to experience their annual ski holiday, many who would normally have travelled overseas have not been able to. Our day visitor ratio is significantly lower than previous years due to reduced border opening times and the high cost of PCR test for a one-day visit, however this allows for social distancing at the resort and wider spaces between guests on the lifts, slope, restaurant capacity among others,” says Moon.
During the pandemic, Afriski created a number of local initiatives to supplement income for staff and generate skills development with sewing, silkscreen printing, baking and art skills.
LTDC public relations officer Molapo Matela this week hailed the resort for its aggressive marketing strategy.
“Afriski is a is vibrant and aggressive in its marketing initiatives. They hire qualified personnel and their service is impeccable. Other tourism players must emulate this kind of service,” says Matela.
“We understand the kind of challenges that the tourism industry is facing and we would have wanted to assist them financially but we can’t because we do not have the funds.”
Mamorena Mohatla, who travelled from Pretoria, South Africa with her eight-year-old son says she has been trying to book a stay at the resort for the past three years without success.
“It’s been amazing just that I’m sore but my son is still on the slopes enjoying himself. I have been trying to book since my son was five but it was always fully booked. I only succeeded this year,” she says.
Matieho Khoalenyane from Maseru said she “felt like a kid again” on her first visit.
“It was an adventure. I felt like I was in another world and the hospitality was amazing. I felt like a kid again which was awesome,” says Khoalenyane.
Another visitor from Maseru, Bernice Sefali, on Monday said while the activities like skiing were challenging, they were also fulfilling.
“I had a wonderful time. The activities were challenging yet fulfilling. I learnt while having fun. I would go again, without even thinking twice, given a chance,” says Sefali.