With 408 structures destroyed by ferocious forest fires in and around Knysna and a reconstruction bill of more than R1 billion, the picturesque seaside town is still open for business and its tourism board has pleaded with visitors not to stay away.
Tourism is the mainstay of its economy and a big job creator.
Knysna municipality spokesperson Fran Kirsten said she was not able to immediately stipulate all the types of structures lost, but tourism has so far documented 33 accommodation establishments lost to fire.
After an assessment yesterday, this translated to 250 bedrooms at bed and breakfast establishments, which was a loss of millions of rands, Knysna Tourism Board chairperson Elmay Bouwer told The Citizen.
But Bouwer pledged all planned tourism activities and events would continue, including the famous Knysna trails, although “Circles in the Forest”, was destroyed by the blaze.
The trail was inspired by Dalene Matthee, whose book under the same title focuses on conservation and the destruction of the indigenous forest.
With tourism numbers having already dropped since the fire broke out last week, Bouwer asserted that the town was “open for business”.
“Our activities on the Garden Route haven’t been affected. Some of the biggest providers on the estuary are operational in full force,” she said. The renowned Knysna Oyster Festival, which is scheduled for next month and is the town’s biggest tourism drawcard, will go ahead, she added.
“This is the first event coming up and all our sponsors are on board 100%,” Bouwer said.
“This will take place. The important fact is that the Oyster Festival boosts the economy over the winter period. We really need visitors to support the festival, so we keep our jobs and support the local businesses.”
Those who may have booked at establishments that burnt down would be channelled to other bed and breakfasts, she said.
“The roads are all clear, so we urge people to join us,” she pleaded. Bouwer further described the community spirit as being “bittersweet”, with residents pulling together, but at the same time, having devastation staring right at them.
“It was a bit overwhelming at first, but now we are settling down and identifying the real needs of everyone.”
The Knysna Marathon is also said to go ahead in July.
Residents have meanwhile been asked to continue conserving water as supply was under pressure. In its latest update, the municipality said there was “extensive damage” to the power supply and water infrastructure during the fires.
“This has created extra pressure on an already strained system. There are areas where residents remain without water and/or electricity.”
Fake news rumours that have been propagated, including reports of arson and the hijacking of supply trucks, had further created panic among “already traumatised residents”, it continued.
“The municipality’s communication department is spending valuable time trying to quell sensationalist stories in the media and on social media. For accurate updates, follow the Knysna municipality communications channels.”
Among the aid relief, humanitarian aid organisation Gift of the Givers had deployed specialised medical personnel to the area in response to the shutdown of the provincial hospital as a precautionary measure.
The team comprises five emergency medicine specialists, two paediatricians, two gynaecologists, two general practitioners, a wound care specialist and an advanced life-support paramedic.