(eTN) – Less than a year after international outrage at Protea Hotels Zambia seeking to develop a 72-bed conference facility on the banks of the Zambezi River right opposite Mana Pools National Park and World Heritage Site, Zimbabwe’s cash-strapped Parks and Wildlife Management Authority has now asked stakeholders to ratify four new 24-bed lodge developments for Mana Pools on its own side of the river, according to a report in Wild Zambezi’s most recent newsletter. Three of these proposed developments are muted for sites along the eco-sensitive Zambezi river frontage and one inland.
The reaction of the local and international public who are familiar with Mana Pools and hold it dear to their hearts has been one of horror.
Conservation groups, tour operators, and visitors from all over the world who have written to express their views are almost universally against further tourism developments along the Zambezi River frontage in Mana Pools. They believe that the proposed developments will result in increased volumes of visitors, staff, traffic, noise, etc. that will have major negative impacts on the sensitive ecology and wildlife of the narrow “floodplain” area. The wilderness tourism experience that brings visitors to Mana Pools will also be diminished. Indeed, a warning came from tourism-associated organizations in both Kenya and Tanzania that Zimbabwe should not fall into the same trap that these countries have done with regard to overcrowding national parks for maximum gain while ruining the tourism experience.
A number of people have suggested that Zimbabwe’s Parks Authority should rather concentrate on developing small-scale tourism facilities at selected sites inland of the floodplain area away from the river where impacts will be less. Some suggestions have even been put forward for these locations.
Overseas tour operators who send international visitors to Mana Pools have expressed the view that Africa is already full of “luxury lodges” and that the attraction of Mana Pools is that it is different. Its simple tented camps, they say, provide a unique “close to nature” feel, which should be retained, in order to attract visitors seeking a wilderness experience – something which is increasingly valued in the modern world. Several overseas tour operators went so far as to claim that they would no longer bring clients to Mana Pools if these developments were allowed to go ahead because of the loss of wilderness.
Some local visitors to Mana Pools feel that the addition of more private sector expensive and exclusive lodges will further diminish the ability of Zimbabweans to enjoy their national heritage at affordable rates. They argue that operators should rather be encouraged to enter into joint ventures to upgrade the five existing park tourism lodges.
The strong public reaction has resulted in an appeal for a moratorium on all new riverside developments at Mana Pools until the Park Management Plan (recently completed, but as yet unsigned by the Environment Minister) can be revisited in the light of these new proposals, which were not included or discussed during public consultation. The transparency and accountability of the park planning process has come under criticism because of this and indeed, concerns have also been raised about the allocation of tenders for the proposed developments.
Wilderness Safaris, who were named as one of the proposed developers, but have since withdrawn their proposal, are among those who believe that the planning process should be widened to include the whole Mana Pools/Sapi/Chewore World Heritage Site area, thus allowing for more flexibility and creativity in planning for tourism development throughout the middle Zambezi Valley.
However, such an exercise will be expensive. Zimbabwe’s Parks Authority currently has insufficient funds to effectively manage the protected areas under its jurisdiction. In the current economic and political climate, creative solutions will have to be found. In the meantime, though, the authority is urged not to lose sight of the need to carefully balance its long-term responsibilities as custodians of a nation’s present and future heritage and the Zambezi valley’s globally-significant wilderness areas, with its short-term desire to settle the bills.