It was the first time the organisation had given a South African site this honour, and the impact on St Lucia has been dramatic as national and international tourists have flocked to the town.
Located in northern KwaZulu-Natal, St Lucia has evolved into the gateway for people wanting to view the abundant wildlife and bird life in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, as well as the Big Five to be found in the nearby Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve.
According to the iSimangaliso Wetland Park’s website, more than half of KwaZulu-Natal’s water birds feed, roost and nest in the St Lucia Estuary, and 71 of the 155 recorded fish species use the estuary as a nursery area.
Economically, the harvests of raw materials, particularly estuarine sedges, is worth about R7.5 million annually, while the contribution of the estuarine floodplain areas to livestock grazing is calculated at R3.6m.
Tourism provides nearly 1300 direct full-time jobs and 6900 indirect ones, with the town enticing about 510000 visitors annually. Statistically, 42% are foreign tourists spending R46m on an estimated 157000 tourism activities from local operators.
There is evidence of early humans living in the caves in the surrounding Lebombo Mountains more than 130000 years ago, but St Lucia was first named in 1554 as Rio dos Medos do Ouro (River of the Gold Dunes) by survivors of the shipwrecked Portuguese vessel São Bento. In 1822, the British proclaimed St Lucia as a township and in 1895 the St Lucia Game Reserve (30km north of the town) was proclaimed.
Today, the St Lucia Estuary is home to about 1200 Nile crocodiles and 800 hippos – and the warning signs in the town depicting hippos roaming at night are not to be taken lightly. Other creatures include leopards, kudu, rhino, buck and an abundance of bird life.
“Awarded as a World Heritage Site, this small but quaint village has fast become a top tourist destination. St Lucia also happens to be the most visited town in Africa to witness our beloved hippos,” says safari specialist company Heritage Tours and Safaris owner Quentin Muir.
Evidence of that growth is witnessed in the flurry of new construction, including a hotel, revamped shopping facilities to accommodate national retailers and the new National Sea Rescue Institute facility.
As an indication of commercial business, properties on the market last year included a restaurant measuring 339m² capable of seating 150 patrons with an asking price of R2m; a guest house, described as an investment opportunity, measuring 1184m² for R4.6m and a second guest house boasting 24 bedrooms for R9.8m.
In November, a 4.7 hectare farm near the town came to the market for R9.849m. Registered as residential/business, the property has a main house, as well as four additional houses currently leased to tenants, two workshops and a staff compound.