By Peta Thornycroft
IT IS one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the stupendous roar of its cascades synonymous with the raw beauty of the African landscape.
But for nearly two decades, Victoria Falls was a little-visited gem, as the political violence and mismanagement of Robert Mugabe’s regime kept tourists away from Zimbabwe.
Now, six months after Mugabe’s 37-year rule ended in a soft coup, the Falls are once again seeing a surge in visitors from Britain – and locals say they are hoping for a return to the glory days when it was one of the most important destinations in Africa.
“This place has gone ballistic, shopping malls are going up, every man and his dog wants to be at Vic Falls at the moment… it’s great,” said Trevor Lane, local wildlife expert and long-time Victoria Falls resident.
“Remember we lost 18 years when people stayed away, and I hope new hotels and corporates will not swallow some of the first-class smaller local operators,” Lane said.
Locally known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning “the smoke which thunders” in the local Tonga language, the site has fascinated Western visitors since David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary, stumbled across them more than 160 years ago.
In the 1990s, nearly 200,000 people were checking in at the ticket office to see the Victoria Falls every year. All that changed nearly two decades ago, when a new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) nearly won elections in 2000.
In retaliation, Mugabe’s regime sent veterans of the Seventies war against white-ruled Rhodesia on a campaign of land invasions of more than 4,000 white-owned farms.
As the economy crashed, Western countries imposed sanctions, and thousands of political activists were killed or fled the country, tourists began to give the country a wide berth.
By 2008 visitor numbers were down to 25,000, according to statistics from the Zimbabwe Tourist Authority and the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, which runs most wildlife conservancies.
But since the beginning of the year, new hotels and lodges are under construction, others are expanding, and tourist arrivals are higher than anyone can remember.
The two agencies now say they are expecting 300,000 people to visit the Falls this year alone. Income from these tickets is the largest source of income for the Parks Authority, which controls Zimbabwe’s main wildlife conservancies and tries, against extraordinary odds, to control poaching.
“Without any unexpected impediments there is no reason why Victoria Falls will not become one of the four or five key destinations in Africa in the next four or five years,” says Ross Kennedy, chief executive of Africa Albida Tourism, a large operator at the Falls.
He says its facilities are already fully booked for August and they have about 90 per cent bookings for the rest of the season, which usually ends when summer rains begin at year end.
Attractions include a booze cruise along the Zambezi River, canoeing among crocodiles on the calmer stretches, white river rafting on the wilder ones, a 300ft bungee jump off the spectacular Victoria Falls bridge which links Zimbabwe with Zambia, and a terrifying 1,000ft zip line over the rapids.
And of course, the Falls are amazing simply to look at. Even from 10 miles away, visitors can make out the shimmering mist rising from millions of tons of water which fall over the volcanic rock gorges.
Many operators say they believe British tourists stayed away for “ethical” reasons when political violence erupted in the early 2000s. But it is not just Brits who are trickling in now.
Wealthy Chinese tourists are also arriving in increasing numbers, and some “billionaires”, as the locals call them, arrive in their own aircraft.
The renaissance has been helped by the extension of the Victoria Falls Airport runway, which can now receive all aircraft, including Dreamliners, 24 hours a day. Until two years ago only smaller planes could land there during daylight hours.
At least nine airlines now fly into Victoria Falls, mainly from Johannesburg and Cape Town. Arrival numbers are four times what they were during the height of political unrest ten years ago.
Operators say visitors are also beginning to trickle back elsewhere – even to the dilapidated camps run by the Parks Authority elsewhere. Sharon Stead, owner of the Amalinda Safari Collection which runs luxury wildlife lodges in the state-owned Hwange National Park in north-west Zimbabwe and the Matopos Hills near Bulawayo says forward bookings are “great” after several tough years.
“There is now much more interest in destinations off the beaten track. We cater for those, such as photographers, who want the vastness of wide-open spaces for bigger herds of elephants, Roan antelope, and of course in Matopos, rhino, the black eagle and bushman paintings,” she said.
Visitors to Zimbabwe still face hurdles, however. It is expensive, and the country has no official currency since local money was abandoned when it became worthless ten years ago.
Prices are marked in US dollars, but since there are almost none of them in the banks or the ATMs, locals use electronic cash on debit cards or mobile phone credit.
Foreigners often pay for their holiday in advance, electronically, and pay bills within Victoria Falls using foreign credit cards. For everything else, they have to turn to illegal money changers.
Forward bookings into Zimbabwe have “grown steadily… largely from North America, Europe as well as the UK,” said Chris Roche, chief marketing officer of Wilderness Safaris, which runs five private concessions in key wildlife areas in the country.
“We are very pleased… allied to the growth in arrivals to the Falls is increased demand for longer itineraries in the safari areas.”
– The Telegraph, London