JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - South Africa's world-renowned Kruger National Park is to get its first luxury hotel, but not everyone is impressed by the decision aimed at attracting the growing black middle class.
The move by South African National Parks has been met with disapproval from staunch nature lovers who argue that the hotel will degrade the reserve's ecology and ambiance.
But authorities insist the development is part of the evolution of safari tourism -- geared to shed the park's image as an elitist destination for white South Africans and foreigners looking to escape to nature.
Of the more than one million people who visit the park annually, white South Africans are the largest group, according to SANParks.
More and more blacks visit every year, but they are just 26 percent of the total. Among them, only six percent stay overnight.
The target market for the hotel are the so-called "black diamonds" of the new middle class, who officials hope will help make national parks more commercially viable.
"Our assessment has shown that this group does not like staying in camps or lodges available in the park," parks tourism boss Glenn Phillips told AFP.
Created in 1898 by colonial-era president Paul Kruger, the park opened to the public in 1927 and was long seen as a symbol of white domination in a country where polemics around land and race run deep.
The hotel, planned for the southern part of the two-million-hectare (five-million-acre) reserve, will be built near the Malelane Gate, the most convenient entrance from Johannesburg and the airport in nearby Nelspruit.
It will be a single-storey complex with 119 rooms, overlooking the Crocodile River.
However, assurances by SANParks that "the development would be line with our mandate to conserve nature" have failed to convince all conservationists, sparking a heated debate and even accusations of racism.
The national parks have had to respond to stereotypes, such as online comments and letters to local newspapers saying blacks do not enjoy the wild and would degrade the quiet park setting with big luxury cars and loud music.
"Are these people going to be happy to sit in the hotel after sunset and listen to the sound of the African bush? Before long there will be in-house entertainment, a nightclub and then a casino to keep the money moving," one reader wrote to a newspaper in Nelspruit.
One fierce opponent of the hotel, Allan Eccles, a Johannesburg-based tour operator for Falcon Africa Safaris, has accused SANParks of "commercialising Kruger Park and attempting to turn it into a Disneyland".
"This hotel should have been built outside the park. There has been no evidence suggesting that the black middle class want the hotel there," Eccles told AFP, adding that the proposed site is an environmentally sensitive area.
Phillips said SANParks officials were aware of the emotions stirred by the plans, but that "some of the concerns were unfounded".
SANParks' long-term strategy is to build hotels in other parks across the country, aiming to attract more domestic visitors.
Change to Kruger has always caused controversy, from the building of the first camp in 1939 to the tarring of roads and opening of petrol stations, Phillips said.
Today only 0.3 percent of the park, which is nearly the size of Belgium, is developed.
Retired Kruger park manager Salomon Joubert described the hotel plans as a "dramatic deviation from national park philosophy".
"National parks are there for their scientific, for their spiritual and educational values. They are not here as resorts," Joubert told television news show Carte Blanche.
But another ex-Kruger manager, Harold Braack, supported the hotel, saying the parks must evolve with the times.
"I believe that the hotel development will be a benefit to Kruger and to local communities -- this is important if we wish to have a Kruger National Park in the future," said Braack.
"Conservation has to grow with people and benefit people."