By The Citizen (SA)
After decades of lolling in the tourism doldrums, Victoria Falls is making a comeback – not only as Zimbabwe’s premier visitor attraction but it is also gearing up to expand as a major southern African travel hub.
Key to the resurgence, say members of tourism bodies in Matebeleland North, has been upgrading Victoria Falls’ international airport to accommodate wide-bodied aircraft.
Airbus A330-300s of Euro wings Discover, a subsidiary of Germany’s Lufthansa airline, touch down in Victoria Falls three times a week and talks are underway for other major airlines – including one of the major Middle Eastern operators, speculated to be Qatar – to follow suit.
International airlines currently servicing the town include British Airways, Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines. Regional airlines include Airlink and Fastjet, and there are local operators which link Victoria Falls with other destinations in Zimbabwe (including Kariba) and nearby Zambia.
South African Airways recently announced it would resume flights to Victoria Falls before the end of this year.
I sat down with Dave Cooper and Suzanne Smith during a recent visit, which took place last month, a few days after a German tourist was murdered while driving to the Kruger National Park, causing a wave of trip cancellations to South Africa.
Cooper is a financial consultant to more than a score of local tour operators and bodies, while Smith is the marketing manager of a number of guest lodges and a member of Africa’s Eden; a regional tourism association promoting Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana, and using Vic Falls as the hub.
The two most popular tourist destinations in South Africa are the Kruger and Cape Town, reflecting foreign visitors’ desire to combine African wildlife and Western Cape Wineland’s experiences.
“Many people in Europe don’t realise they can fly directly to Victoria Falls,” says Smith. “They could easily substitute Zimbabwe for the wildlife experience – we have both Hwange and the Zambezi National Park on our doorstep – and, of course, there’s the majestic beauty of the falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
“From here it’s a quick flight to Cape Town and Johannesburg as well as Windhoek [Namibia] and Maun [Botswana, gateway to the Okavango Delta].”
The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, in conjunction with the private sector, recently launched an intensive action plan to upgrade its two blue-chip game parks. The first priority is to improve security and curb cross-border poaching, especially from Zambia.
The initiative is already gaining traction in the Zambezi National Park with the Victoria Falls Anti Poaching Unit receiving assistance from the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and being given more muscle via a “shoot to kill” mandate. Roads are being upgraded to facilitate patrolling.
Smith says a local boom in accommodation provision was interrupted by the pandemic but is beginning to regain momentum. “Tourism is looking good for the future, though it will probably take a few years till we return to the glory days of Victoria Falls as an international and regional destination,” she adds.
Tim Harris is a former chief executive of Wesgro (the official tourism, trade and investment promotion agency for Cape Town and the Western Cape) and partner in Consulum, a firm dedicated to helping governments develop, lead and deliver programmes that promote their global interests.
While praising the Victoria Falls tourism sector for its “resilience in rebuilding a positive image”, he said it was unlikely to replace Johannesburg as a regional hub.
“The power of the traditional African aviation hubs – Johannesburg, Nairobi and Addis Ababa – is being broken up and disintermediated into a broader range of destinations across the continent.
“With regional hubs being served by direct flights from, for instance, Europe and the US, they are liberated from their dependency on the main hubs and become launching pads for alternative tourist itineraries.
“Framing these itineraries – as Victoria Falls is doing – is very useful for developing and marketing the smaller destinations.”