SPRAY from Victoria Falls hits the faces of tourists and locals as they look down at Africa’s most famous waterfall. The water acts as a wake-up call, but this spectacular sight is no dream.
Located on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, tourists from all over the world arrive to witness the natural wonder. In 2013 alone, over 1.8 million people came to Zimbabwe on holiday according to the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority.
That number may sound impressive, but tourism authorities say 2014 will be an even stronger year for the industry.
“Zimbabwe is pumping when it comes to tourism,” says Barbara Murasiranwa from Zimbabwe’s Tourism Council. “We’ve picked up, gotten back to… where we were in 1999, and we are even surpassing the figures for 1999.”
Murasiranwa has good reason to be optimistic — the World Travel & Tourism Council expects tourism to make more money for the country in 2014 than any other year in the past decade.
And recent figures also show hotels at Victoria Falls are enjoying solid business — occupancy rates in the area reached 77.6% in August, up from 62.6% in the same period in 2013.
But the tourism industry has been through tough times after its heyday in the 1990s.
“It was the land invasions and the violence and the bad publicity that the country received,” says Trevor Lane of the organization Friends of Victoria Falls, explaining the industry’s slump.
“[Zimbabwe] was perceived as a high risk country after that and tourism virtually stopped overnight.”
Shortly after the world welcomed in a new millennium, more than 2,000 white owned farms, of five million hectares, were targeted by the government for resettlement.
While authorities insisted the program was sustainable, some white farmers were subject to violence, and lost their property to emboldened groups of black Zimbabweans.
Since then, members of the international community — including the U.S. Treasury — have imposed sanctions on president Robert Mugabe and his inner circle.
The chronic economic mismanagement that followed saw a period of hyper-inflation, and citizens at some point had to pay 300 billion Zimbabwean dollars for a loaf of bread.
According to the World Bank, “Zimbabwe is in debt distress as total external debt at the end of 2012 remains high at 70% of GDP.”Advertisement
And these economic hardships hit the tourism sector hard. While over 2.2 million tourists arrived in 1999, by 2005 that number was 1.5 million. The industry has seen a shaky recovery since then, but the hard times are still fresh in the minds of hotel owners and tour operators.
“Tourism shrank massively,” says Lane. “A lot of people obviously folded, left town … the rest of us just managed to survive … until [the] revival started again a couple of years ago.”
In a move to ensure the troubled days don’t return, Minister of Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Walter Mzembi, has announced a $150 million plan to expand the airport at Victoria Falls.
The project, which will be financed with a loan from China EXIM Bank, is boosting confidence amongst local business owners.
“Currently, the … short runway limits us as to the number of people that can come in on a flight,” explains Jonathan Hudson, the manager of Safari Lodge — one of the biggest hotels in Victoria Falls.
“The new 4 km runway, the new terminal, which will be able to hold up to five wide bodied aircraft, new carousels, increased immigration offices, is going to make a huge difference to us. With this we can increase the number of seats coming into Zimbabwe on a daily basis.”
But, as U.N. data shows tourist numbers worldwide grew by 5% in the first eight months of 2014, renewed confidence in the Victoria Falls region is palpable.
“I think Vic Falls is on a goldmine,” says Karen Dewhurst from the cruise company Zambezi Explorer. “It’s a beautiful location, and people are beginning to hear about it, and with Zimbabwe being much safer…it’ll definitely pick up.”
Trevor Lane from Friends of Victoria Falls, is also optimistic. “I think the future looks good.
“I think what we got to be careful of is that we don’t sort of over-capitalize…We don’t want to make it into another Niagara Falls where it’s over commercialised. But I do think that the future here is very bright.”