NELSON Mandela Bay’s tourism industry suffered has yet another crushing blow with the sudden closure of the popular McArthur Baths swimming pool complex.
The metro has also shut down its once internationally renowned Oceanarium at Bayworld, where other facilities have languished at the run-down complex for many months.
Adding to the city’s bleak tourism picture is the demise of the famous Apple Express narrow gauge steam train at the end of last year
and the loss of the last of the city’s once-prized Blue Flag beaches at the beginning of this year.
The Blue Flag initiative was born in France in 1985, with the first coastal municipalities awarded the Blue Flag on the basis of sewage treatment and bathing water quality.
The concept has since grown to include other criteria, and there are now over 3 450 Blue Flag beaches and marinas in 41 countries around the world.
Blue Flag is managed in South Africa by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, in partnership with the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism and participating coastal authorities under the department's Coast Care programme.
An historic, art deco-styled complex that underwent a highly-publicised R13.5-illion revamp about 10 years ago, McArthur Baths closed following a surprise decision by Bel-Essex, which had operated the complex on behalf of the municipality for the past 10 years, not to renew their lease. The company has already removed its equipment from the complex.
Bel-Essex has remained tight-lipped about the reason for its decision, with managing director Riaan van der Mescht saying its contract to manage the baths had expired at the end of March.
Not so, said municipal spokesperson Kupido Baron, who claimed the management contract would only expire in October.
“This is a sticky matter,” Baron said. “Our legal services are busy looking into this.
“Bel-Essex terminated the contract which was meant to expire only in October. We acted in good faith and bent over backwards for the operators. “We also gave them ample opportunity to rectify the situation, but they have acted in a malicious manner,” Baron said.
The closure of the baths comes just days before 1800 athletes from 36 nations arrive in Port Elizabeth for the high-profile annual Ironman event on Sunday, April 10. An offshoot “IronKids” event is meant to be held from McArthur Baths.
In a letter to the metro’s Recreation and Culture Portfolio councillor Maria Hermans, DA councillor Dean Biddulph expressed concern about the situation.
Biddulph said he had contacted representatives from Bel-Essex to appeal to them to consider maintaining the baths at least until after the Ironman weekend, but they had not been prepared to do so.
Biddulph said as a result responsibility for the facility reverted to the metro as from April 1. He said he had spoken to Beaches and Resorts Director Tony Knott, who had suggested he contact Leon Botha, head of pools, “to see if he might assist in maintaining the facility”.
“He says the facility falls under Facilities Management, that he has no budget allocation for the pools and therefore is not in position to assist,” Biddulph said.
“The metro cannot afford to be embarrassed by pools that are in a poor condition over the Ironman weekend. Our beachfront has taken a beating in recent times as a result of the ongoing Bayworld saga and the loss of Blue Flag status.”
Biddulph appealed for “an intervention at the highest level” to ensure the facility was kept at an acceptable standard. He also said it was “vitally important that ongoing maintenance be done to protect the substantial private sector investment” made by a tenant at the complex – popular restaurant bar Cubana.
“I would urge that immediate consideration be given to fast-tracking the process (of) calling for expressions of interest to ensure the continued viability of the complex. A new operator urgently needs to be identified and contracts put in place.”
Eastern Cape tourism specialist Peter Myles said the most important aspect now was for the complex to be maintained. “It could very quickly deteriorate and become an eyesore,” said Myles.
He added the complex had always been an attractive and prominent feature along the Port Elizabeth beachfront. “In order to attract not only tourists, but also investors, we have to keep up a world-class look.”
Baron has assured that services at the baths would soon resume “as normal”.
“Our beach office will be taking over the management of the facility until this situation is rectified. All the planned events, such as the IronKids, will go ahead.”