Just when all of Cape Town, and even South Africa, is feverishly voting to make Table Mountain a New7Wonders of Nature when voting closes today, damning articles were published yesterday in the Cape Times and The Guardian, questioning the credibility of this competition.

The Guardian wrote that the 4-year competition has become controversial, with some countries having been charged millions of dollars for the marketing use of the campaign.  In its final leg of voting, to select the top seven ‘natural landscapes and places’, a short-list of 28 includes Table Mountain, the Great Barrier Reef, the Maldives, Mount Kilimanjaro, Uluru, the Dead Sea, and the Amazon rainforest.  Charged a mere $199 registration fee to enter initially, some participating countries have since been charged exorbitant fees for a global marketing campaign, leading to the threatened withdrawal from the competition by the Maldives and the Komodo Island national park in Indonesia.  The organisers have encouraged these two attractions to remain in the competition, without any further payment.

Past CEO of Cape Town Tourism and past Mayor of Cape Town, Gordon Oliver, is quoted in The Guardian as asking: “What authority does this organisation have to determine a natural wonder as a finalist? It’s important that our authorities get the credentials of such organisations who set themselves up as the authority to decide the prominence of natural features”. The New7Wonders Foundation has denied charging excessive fees, yet it has confirmed that there are fees to be paid if the Foundation’s branding is used. A spokesperson said that the income derived from the competition funds the running of the competition and ‘maintaining a voting platform’.

In its lead story yesterday, the Cape Times wrote a damning report about the New7Wonders competition, the Foundation earning half of the R2 SMS fee per vote (potentially generating up to R1 billion, if it achieves its goal of 1 billion votes). The report also states that the campaign does not have any standing with international official or scientific bodies.  It has no relationship to UNESCO, which governs the World Heritage sites.  The article also quotes Oliver, and he asks what additional benefit the New7Wonders of Nature title would have.  Being based purely on a vote by SMS or on MXit restricts the campaign to a vote by cellphone and computer owners, and does not reflect the views of the ‘entire world’, said a UNESCO spokesperson, the organisation having distanced itself from the campaign.  The City of Cape Town confirmed that it has spent R1,7 million on advertising country-wide, to encourage South Africans to vote for Table Mountain.  The City has justified its expenditure , in that Table Mountain has made it to the finalist list of 28, from 440 initial entrants.   It also quoted research by Grant Thornton (the consultants who grossly over-estimated the economic value of the World Cup), which estimated that Cape Town specifically and South Africa generally could benefit from being named a New7Wonder of Nature, through an increase of R1,4 billion in tourism revenue.

We have seen that the accolades which Cape Town has received this year, including being named top world travel destination by TripAdvisor, have had little benefit for tourism to date, and therefore question the value of the New7Wonders competition for tourism.  Earlier this week it was announced that votes for Table Mountain were lagging badly behind those of many other finalists destinations.  It has been noticeable that Cape Town Tourism has given Table Mountain little support for its New7Wonders of Nature campaign, despite Sabine Lehmann, Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company CEO and driver of the Table Mountain New7Wonders campaign, being a Board member of the tourism body.

Voting for the Top New7Wonders of Nature will end at 11h11 GMT (13h11 in South Africa) today, 11 November 2011, reports The Guardian.  In a Southern African Tourism Update article received last night, it is announced that the result will be announced at 21h00 in the V&A Waterfront this evening. www.new7wonders.com

POSTSCRIPT 11/11: I read the City of Cape Town’s ad properly after writing this blogpost – it features Archbishop Tutu with outstretched arms, standing on top of Table Mountain, so badly photographed by Oryx Multi Media that he is unrecognisable.  It also contains a quote by him: “I really can understand how, when God created all that there is he said, ‘I think I’ve got to do something special here’. And so God produced this fantastic gateway in the South – Table Mountain – our mountain, what a wonder!”. Over-optimistically, the ad claims boldly that becoming a New7 Wonders of Nature will ‘boost the South African economy by R1,4 billion per annum’, and that ‘11000 new jobs will be created’.

POSTSCRIPT 11/11 21h15: Table Mountain has just been announced as one of the New7Wonders of Nature, with the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil, Halong Bay in Vietnam, Iguazu Falls in Argentina, Jeju Island in South Korea, Komodo in Indonesia, and Puerto Princesa Underground River in the Phillipines.  What is extraordinary is that the organisers write that the list of seven is provisional, and subject to verification, as late as the start of 2012!

POSTSCRIPT 12/11: Tourism consultants Grant Thornton have issued a media release today, predicting that Table Mountain’s inclusion in the New7Wonders of Nature will attract 108000 new tourists per annum, and that this translates to additional tourism revenue of R 1,4 billion per year, for the next five years.

POSTSCRIPT 12/11: City of Cape Town Mayoral Committee member for Tourism Grant Pascoe has been extensively quoted in Kfm news reports this morning, stating that Table Mountain’s inclusion as a New7Wonders of Nature will boost tourism and create jobs, emphasising the latter in particular.  One hopes that the expectations he is creating will not be dashed!

POSTSCRIPT 12/11: The organisers of the New7Wonders of Nature have found a new way to generate income, and announced last night that they are starting a new campaign to choose the New7Wonders Cities, for which city nominations close on 31 December.

POSTSCRIPT 13/11: A surprise sentiment is expressed in a media release sent today by Cape Town Routes Unlimited, its CEO Calvyn Gilfellan subtly requesting lower rates for ‘ordinary people’ to go up Table Mountain: “We want to salute the thousands of ordinary South Africans who voted for Table Mountain, and whose support ensured that the city’s iconic peak was named one of the New7Wonders of Nature. These ordinary people, we believe, stand tall among the real heroes in this accomplishment. Together with the official organizing committee, they deserve our richest praise and congratulations. Now the challenge is to make Table Mountain, and the rest of Cape Town’s tourist attractions usually associated with visitors who have deep pockets, more accessible to ordinary people. After all, it was the ordinary people who stood up to vote for Table Mountain. We at Cape Town Routes Unlimited, the official destination marketing voice of Cape Town and the Western Cape, stand ready to assist with this”.

POSTSCRIPT 13/11: Earlier this week provincial Tourism Minister Alan Winde did a tandem jump from Signal Hill, taking a ‘leap of faith‘ in the vote for Table Mountain.  He said: “As nervous as I am for this jump, I am far more nervous about this vote”. The Minister stated that the win for Table Mountain would mean a 20 % increase in tourism numbers, reported the Cape Argus.

POSTSCRIPT 4/5: The status of Table Mountain as a New7Wonders of Nature has finally been confirmed, six months after Cape Town’s landmark received a provisional award, subject to a voting audit.  All seven New7Wonders of Nature have had their status confirmed.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage