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Is The Country Ready?

Zimbabwe tourist tsunami

Gill Staden  Mar 08, 2010

When we started Maplanga Africa in 1995, it was during the “pioneer” days of outbound tourism into Africa, email was a not-too-distant concept, apartheid was dead and buried, and South Africa had just been accepted into the “African family”. Our company, if one could call it that at the time, was born sitting around a campfire on the banks of the Zambezi in Livingstone, Zambia. I had persuaded my wife (Natalie) to come with me on an African road trip/adventure, which saw us traveling and enjoying the many wonders that Zimbabwe had to offer at the time. However, instead of staying at one of the many good offerings that Victoria Falls had, we opted to go across the bridge to a lodge outside Livingstone. It was during our stay at a wonderful rustic bush lodge that an idea was conceived to market lodges in the Victoria Falls region to the South African market and beyond. We literally fell in love with the sights and smells of the area, to us, the most special place on earth.

Looking back at old Getaway magazines during the late 90s, I see that we “hid” the Livingstone properties that we were marketing in the Zimbabwe section of the Destinations pages. Why? Well in those good old days (prior to 2000) Zambia had little chance of competing against the well-oiled Zimbabwean tourism machine. Ninety percent of South Africans wanted - no demanded - Victoria Falls, Zimside, not the undiscovered “Central African” Zambian side. During the apartheid years, many South Africans believed Zambia was a no-go area. In fact, Zambia was an active base for the ANC, and many South Africans feared Zambia because of this.

So when the phones rang and we put packages together, we had to reveal to our clients that this particular lodge or rafting company that they were responding to was, in fact, based in Zambia, not Zimbabwe! Nine times out of ten we managed to convince the clients that Livingstone was a good option mainly due to the fact that most lodges were based on the river bank of the Zambezi - a huge selling point. Still, as we speak, the Zim side of Vic Falls can only boast of one lodge situated actually on the Zambezi River (close to the Falls), the all time favorite A’Zambezi River Lodge.

In 2000, a certain president decided that he was going to muck around with the Zimbabwe we all knew and loved; the rest is history and I won’t dwell on what has happened. But needless to say, tourism to Zimbabwe dived to record low levels and this continued up until April of last year. In fact, we even contemplated hiding the Zimbabwean lodges we marketed in the Zambian section of the Getaway mag.

Today we see a different scenario, tourism numbers are starting to climb, and South Africans want to experience magical Zimbabwe once again. OK but what did they do during the big Zim tourism boycott? As a Southern Africa tour operator, we saw a swing to Botswana and Zambia but never the numbers and demand we once enjoyed for Zimbabwe. No, most of the SA tourist market stayed right here at home. Some upped and went to Mozambique, and this is evident by the number of dive schools that opened and flourished during this period. Every Tom, Dick, and Fanie now has a dive qualification and always seems to be embarking on that next big dive adventure to the gentle coastline that Mozambique offers.

Sadly Zimbabwe’s demise was, in fact, Mozambique’s gain.

As we all know the wheel turns, and I think I can speak for most of my male counterparts when I say there is nothing more boring than sitting on a beach and doing bugger all, after you have been on that great dive. The calls and emails are flooding in; instead of trying to hard sell Zimbabwe, we are seeing a demand from clients and corporates wishing to show support and experience all on offer again. Lying on the beach in Mozambique is over - they want to come back and do the circles and routes that are so easy to do, especially now that food and petrol are once again available and reasonably priced.

This is great for Zim but what about Zambia who has used the last 10 years time to develop and put onto the market many lodges and hotels in Livingstone? What will happen to this part of the Falls in the months to come? We truly believe that the resurgence of Zimbabwe will be good for the region of Victoria Falls; in other words, the region as a whole should grow now that “diver Fanie” is becoming “safari Stephan” again.

The time is right for the Vic Falls Region, not just one nation.

Huge amounts of “come back to Victoria Falls” marketing has been done and many positive and enticing articles have been written. The traveler is not stupid; they know about the current developments and have waited until the time was right to return.

Zambia now faces the some serious competition, in the Vic Falls region. There is probably the highest concentration of hotels, lodges, and activities anywhere in the southern hemisphere in the VFR, and it’s all right on our doorstep. In fact, the two sides of Vic Falls will now have to compete in a different marketing environment compared to what there was 10 years ago. It’s almost a Coke and Pepsi scenario, and we all know the marketing battles that have been fought by these two massive global brands.

But we must look at the threats and find solutions. Many travelers and agents believe that Zambia has become user unfriendly; bureaucracy reigns supreme at the borders and high visa fees are off-putting to say the least. Zimbabwe presents other problems, the main one being the big entrance point from South Africa, the notorious Beit Bridge. There is an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa, and most of them try to go home (to Bulawayo) during Easter and Christmas. This spells hell for the self-drive tourist with delays of up to 12 hours reported at this border and Plumtree. Who would want to start off a holiday this way? The solution should be easy - create a free-flow border post similar to Mexico and the USA, simplify the red tape, and have one price and many pay points to keep it all flowing smoothly - a ten lane drive-through border post should work well. It is naïve for us living in South Africa to think now that the problems are nearly over in Zimbabwe, the 3 million will return for good. The border chaos will continue and could, in fact, become worse. Think about it, if all the Zimbos did go home, The Spur group and a probably the South African economy might well collapse.

We are just at the starting block. Stand by for a massive demand for the region kicking off on June 11. Not all South Africans love the “beautiful game.” They will come… and we need to be competitive, offer value for money, and be easy to do business with.

Zimbabwe tourist tsunami
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