Why a U.S. Tour Operator re-discovers Victoria Falls and Southern Africa?
U.S Tour operator Western Leisure Tours, a travel company based in Utah. Western Leisure is now ready to sell travel to Zimbabwe again, after owner Nicole Doherty took a fam trip to southern Africa, flying into and out of the new Victoria Falls International Airport in western Zimbabwe.
While at the falls, she took a hike, went on a sunset cruise and splurged on a helicopter trip to fully appreciate “the smoke that thunders,” as they’re known, after the indigenous Lozi name.
Doherty, from Midvale, Utah, may not have realized it, but she was using a raft of public and private sector initiatives that, together with the airport, are offering Zimbabwe hope for a way out of its economic crisis, and a salve for its dire reputation.
Even as it deals with 300 percent inflation, Zimbabwe last year recorded its best-ever 12 months for tourism in Victoria Falls — the marquee destination — and its western regions more broadly. In 2018, visitors spent a total of 250,000 nights at the 10 Victoria Falls hotels surveyed for the Africa’s Living Soul report, up 30 percent from 2015. Room stock in the town has more than doubled in five years. After mining and agriculture, tourism is the biggest contributor to the country’s economy. And Lonely Planet gave Zimbabwe its vote of confidence, listing it among the 10 countries to visit in 2019 — despite the domestic crisis.
All of these initiatives are helping Zimbabwe rediscover what was once a thriving tourism industry.
The $150 million Victoria Falls International Airport — financed by a loan from China and with a capacity of 1.5 million visitors per year — is the centerpiece of Zimbabwe’s strategy. It opened in December 2015 and now boasts direct flights to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Nairobi (Kenya), Windhoek (Namibia) and Gaborone (Botswana) several times weekly, plus daily services to Cape Town and Johannesburg (South Africa) and Harare and Bulawayo (Zimbabwe). This has allowed travel agents to design itineraries that combine big-ticket destinations on the continent while keeping transit times short. The country has eased visa requirements too.
Hotels, lodges and restaurants have benefited from concessions granted by President Emmerson Mnangagwa. When, in March this year, the government banned Zimbabwean businesses from charging in U.S. dollars, it exempted the tourism industry (for foreign clients). The government is also offering a temporary duty rebate on capital goods imported for use in the tourism business.
Shelley Cox of Victoria Falls-based Africa Conservation Travel says at least 28 new hotels and lodges have taken advantage of the rebate in western Zimbabwe since 2016. The rebate has been “phenomenal,” says Blessing Munyenyiwa, as it has saved his travel company, Love for Africa, “millions of dollars” on the construction of lodges in the past two years. Meanwhile, Ross Kennedy of Africa Albida Tourism says the rebate has incentivized “nonstop” upgrades across his portfolio of hotels and restaurants in Victoria Falls. This explosion in western Zimbabwe’s tourism industry is turning the region into the country’s employment hub. Munyenyiwa’s firm, for example, has added 160 permanent jobs in the past year.
Tourist visas are easier to come by, says Munyenyiwa. Earlier this year, citizens of 32 more countries, including India and China, were granted the right to apply for visas on arrival, and the country is in the process of rolling out an e-visa system that will reduce airport lines.
All of these initiatives are helping Zimbabwe revive what was once a thriving tourism industry. Collaboration between local authorities, businesses and NGOs, explains Cox, has enabled the country to “maintain its wildlife landscapes and biodiversity” despite “years of challenges.” And the country’s safari guides remain among the best in the business due to a rigorous four-year qualification process that involves intense exams and a lengthy apprenticeship.
Plenty of challenges continue to threaten these gains in Zimbabwe, which was ranked 127 out of 141 countries on the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competitiveness Report. Corruption is rife — the country slipped three places to 160 out of 180 nations on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Power cuts have become a part of daily life. And given the country’s history of sudden, seismic shifts in macroeconomic policy — from reintroducing an independent currency this year after using the U.S. dollar for a decade to the ban on accepting dollars — it’s hard to say with confidence how long the current tourism-friendly policies will continue.
Still, for the moment, those in the industry appear optimistic. Kennedy says that while the power cuts are a major hassle, his “guests don’t have a clue the power’s gone off” because “we have plans in place.” For now, those plans involve diesel generators, but his company is looking at taking advantage of the duty rebate to install a 500 kVA solar plant (price tag: $600,000) that will meet all of its power needs and even let it sell power back to the national grid. Corruption, competitiveness and the economy will be harder to fix, but the government has realized, says Munyenyiwa, that tourism is “the quickest way to create jobs and bring in foreign currency.”
Victoria Falls — twice as high and 500 yards wider than Niagara Falls, with the added bonus of elephants and lions roaming its shores — stands testament to that.