By Jon Herskovitz
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa (Reuters) - Plans to build two new hotels in South Africa's flagship Kruger National Park have sparked a racial fight rekindling the country's troubled apartheid past.
South Africa National Parks (SANParks) wants to construct the four-star safari lodges inside Kruger to attract new visitors who are willing to spend a little more money for comfort as opposed to roughing it in a more economic campsite.
But this has brought to the surface lingering racial tensions that have simmered since apartheid ended 17 years ago.
A few conservative white South Africans are predicting the new visitors will be members of the emerging black middle and upper classes -- known locally as "Black Diamonds" -- and have made racially charged comments about loud music and fast cars in the park.
Their fight has mostly been fought out in social media and in one of the newspapers serving the Kruger region called "Lowvelder," with a letter to the paper by a man named "Leon of Nelspruit" igniting a fire storm of comments.
"Does one really expect the visiting 'Black Diamonds' entering the KNP in their high speed luxury cars to obey the 50 km per hour speed limit?" he wrote.
"Are these people going to be happy to sit in the hotel after sunset and listen to the sounds of the African bush? Before long, there will be in-house entertainment; a night club and then a casino to keep the money moving."
The racial element has drawn more attention to the issue being fought between conservationists and park management.
SANParks and critics of the hotel on environmental grounds have denounced the racial attacks and tried to shift the debate to the merits of adding hotels to a park where most people spend the nights in tents, camper vans or concrete huts.
There are already several luxury safari lodges in and around the park that offer gourmet meals, guided tours and soft bed linen for those who can afford the pricey accommodation.
LEGACY OF APARTHEID
"The hotels will be key in attracting nature lovers who would prefer non-self catering facilities for a reasonable price who may not be able to afford the prices of the existing five-star facilities," said Wanda Mkutshulwa, head of communications for SANPArks.
She said the hotels will be built in an environmentally sound way, adding 490 beds to the park. The hotels will make it easier for foreign visitors to stay in Kruger, a park at the center of the country's tourism pitch.
Kruger, visited by about 1 million people a year for its enormous range of wildlife and scenic beauty, is a sprawling site about the same size as Israel.
South Africa's national parks, like many other institutions, are trying to overcome the damage caused during apartheid, when the nature reserves were run almost exclusively to serve white tourists while the black majority was banned from using most park amenities.
SANParks' marketing aims to attract a greater cross section of the population, an approach applauded by the group Aikona (Against Interference in Kruger Our Nature Asset), which says it opposes the new hotels on environmental grounds.
"There are hotels in national parks but nothing as lavish as what is planned for Kruger Park. People go to a national park or a game reserve for a nature experience," said Gerhard Smit, a leader of Aikona.
He said there was enough room in already existing but under-utilized luxury accommodation and not enough study had been done on the damage that would be caused by the planned hotels.
"If we bring racism into this argument, it is an absolute shameful disgrace by anyone," he said.
(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)