The introduction by Ethiopian Airlines of flights into Bulawayo has opened up southern Zimbabwe to visitors and created a convenient route linking the stunning Matobo Hills and Victoria Falls via Hwange National Park.
Starting at Heathrow, it’s now possible to fly to Addis Ababa and continue to Bulawayo via Victoria Falls, all with Ethiopian Airlines. My invitation to fly to Zimbabwe on the inaugural flight from Addis Ababa came at an exciting juncture for a country that suffered political and economic turmoil before Covid-19 turned the world on its axis.
Tourism is the mainstay of Zimbabwe’s economy so when the government made the decision to close the country down overnight as the pandemic hit, it was a massive blow. Airlines stopped flying in and borders were closed.
Of course, this was happening all over the world but in Zimbabwe where so many tourism businesses are family-owned and reliant on international visitors, survival was the name of the game.
The last three years have been incredibly challenging for these small family-run tour operators, lodges and ground handlers. I felt privileged on my travels to meet and listen to those people who have struggled but somehow survived this sustained period with no international tourists and virtually no income. Here are their tales.
‘WE SIMPLY HAD TO REINVENT OURSELVES’
Apparently the first person to get Covid in Zimbabwe was someone flying in from the UK to Victoria Falls. This is according to Anald Musonza, resort general manager at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge.
“We were obliged to close our doors. Everything shut down for several months and we just kept 20 rooms at the [more premium] Safari Club open. We simply had to re-invent ourselves. We had 200 employees to think about and while we sadly saw a huge exodus of people, we did manage to keep skeleton staff on very reduced wages. Even tiny cut-backs helped as they gave up milk in their tea and walked to work.
“What immediately became evident in the vicinity was that people needed quick access to information as to what they could or could not do so we set up a Covid task force, ‘We are Victoria Falls’, which was fully sponsored by the private sector.
“We have always been visionaries in Zimbabwe and realised that communication was everything and we soon became the conduit for the whole of Southern Africa. We wanted to give assurance to tour operators whose livelihood relied totally on tourism. In Victoria Falls 99% of our business is tourism. While people working in agriculture and mining were allowed to work, we were not given a choice.
“Throughout all this time we kept marketing and communicating and somehow we have survived to tell the tale.”
‘WE ONLY HAD ONE COMPUTER TO STUDY, WHICH I SHARED WITH MY MOTHER AND BROTHERS’
One of four brothers, Mark Ali Moyo is a 20 year-old volunteer at Bulawayo’s Natural History Museum where I found him to be a knowledgeable guide with excellent English.
“I have worked here for two months and one day I hope to get my licence to become a wildlife guide. For this I will have to take a theory and practical exam for which I will have to buy my own kit.
“There was no school during Covid and I skipped several exams. It was difficult to study as we had to work online from home and we only had one computer which I had to share with my mother and brothers. What I found most challenging was that there was no one to answer my questions.
“Most of my friends are self-employed. Some are fashion designers. I did think of running a local gym but the equipment is too expensive. Tourism numbers were at record levels in 2019 but during Covid there were no international visitors so no work.
“Unemployment in Zimbabwe is very high and we live by the grace of God. Goods and food are very expensive here so we go to Botswana or South Africa for shopping. Fortunately, I have a Zimbabwean passport – several members of my family have left the country in search of employment.
“My aim is to join the Safari Guiding Academy and get my qualifications.”
‘WE HAD TO STAY ON SITE WITH NO GUESTS TO AVOID DETERIORATION AND A TOTAL REBUILD’
Billi Dally, lodge manager at Amalinda Lodge in Matobo, was “born, bred and buttered in Zimbabwe”. He and his wife Priscilla are passionate about the tourism industry. “I know little else,” he says.
“Covid could have meant total devastation. Suddenly we had no guests but we had to remain on site because we all know if we were not here then things would deteriorate very quickly and it would have meant a total rebuild. Our daughter could not remain home alone so went to boarding school while we remained strictly on site.
“While the pandemic turned everything upside down it also bought the team closer. We closed the lodge to guests completely for four months. Our 15 loyal staff came up with all sorts of proposals for the survival of the lodge and we did not lose anyone although we were all on half pay. As soon as restrictions were eased, we opened our doors to the local market with a reduced menu and lower prices.
“We are all tired of trying to keep our heads above water but Covid has taught us a lot. Some wonderful things happened here in the conservancy field and in wildlife research and anti-poaching. We know that Zimbabwe remains a dream place to visit but have learned not to keep all our eggs in one basket.”
Another loyal member of staff at Amalinda, front of house manager Angel Eklina Moyo, has worked at the lodge for 23 years having started out as a masseuse in the spa.
“I was stuck here during Covid with my 17-year-old son. His school closed for six months so he managed to study here but really missed his friends. One good thing that has come out of Covid is that I have not been able to spend any money so I have been saving up to buy a car. The challenge is that the car will cost me $6,500, but as tourism is picking up again, I am optimistic.”
‘WE TOOK OVER A PROPERTY THAT CLOSED DURING THE PANDEMIC’
Sharon Stead, owner, Amalinda Safari Collection, had to make drastic cutbacks but also found opportunities.
“The previous owners of [our new property] Sable Valley were victims of Covid as the parks were closed and the business became unviable,” she says. “We have been fortunate enough to take over the property but had absolutely no income for seven months causing us to reduce our casual staff from 30 down to five permanent staff on half pay.
“Covid has changed everything and there is now a price war. We managed to open for local Zimbabweans and stayed outside the park but to survive we have to have international guests and tourism dollars. We believe that Zimbabwe is a destination that doesn’t have to be a second choice and we encourage them to stay in one place for longer. We are totally committed to non-consumptive tourism and believe that conservation should be underpinned by the local community. After all, we are based in the buffer zone between community and Hwange National Park.”
Sharon’s distinctive tattoo says it all: “Stay wild.”
‘WE SLASHED OUR RATES AND WATCHED AS OTHER CAMPS AROUND US SIMPLY CLOSED UP’
Thabisa Tarzan Ndlovu is camp manager at Khulu Bush Camp, part of Amalinda Safari Collection.
“We saw our last international guests leave at the end of March 2020 and that was it for the year. I worked one month on and one month at home on half salary for a whole year and am still in shock as to how we pulled through. I was worried that I might lose my job, as my wife was pregnant and we really were living from month to month.
“In order to attract local Zimbabweans we had to get written permission. We slashed our rates and watched as other camps around us simply closed up. My great achievement during lockdown was attaining a degree in hospitality and tourism management through a Unisa (University of South Africa) long-distance learning programme. My brother helped me to pay the fees.
“I also have a small transport business using two cars to transfer people from the airport and city. We had special permission to run the business during Covid as it was considered essential but at one stage were only allowed into town for two hours.
“It is wonderful to back on full throttle now. One day I hope to own my own camp.”
‘WE AGREED TO CUT OUT A MEAL – DOWN TO BRUNCH AND DINNER’
Lovemore Machipisa, managing director of Africa Travel Tours, started his operations in Victoria Falls with his wife in 2006 when he bought his first vehicle – now he has 17.
“The pandemic turned Victoria Falls into a ghost town with the airport and borders closed. We had to get rid of all our contract workers and cut salaries for our 18 permanent staff by 60%. I had to sell two vehicles to help make ends meet but as we were considered essential workers we had permission to keep working when we could find it. I am not sure how we managed to survive those two years. We had to home-school our children sharing a computer and we agreed to cut out a meal – down to brunch and dinner.
“Today I can hardly get a day off but sadly the UK market seems to have disappeared.”