Zambia and Zimbabwe counting the days to UNWTO

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(eTN) – Every day on Zambezi FM Radio in Livingstone, Zambia, the announcer tells us how many days there are before the UNWTO Assembly to be jointly hosted by Livingstone and Victoria Falls Town in August next year. Today I heard him tell us that we have 279 days to go.

The private sectors in both towns are excited about the coming event. When the decision was made in September last year by the UNWTO to award the hosting of the event to Zambia and Zimbabwe jointly, the governments were overjoyed. In both Zambia and Zimbabwe, our governments stated that they would build a new conference facilities, new hotels, shopping malls, upgrade airports, hospitals, roads, water reticulation, and sewage treatment plants. It was a good time for one-upmanship as Zambia and Zimbabwe competed with their plans for the UNWTO.

Now, 9 months before the event we know that those brave words by our governments have come to little and the private sector is getting a bit frustrated.

In Zimbabwe, the government has admitted that the upgrade of their airport will only partially be completed and that although there will be a new runway, the terminal building will not be finished. The plans for a new conference facility which moved from one site to another during the discussions will not materialize anywhere in the town; the alternative is a tent on the grounds of Elephant Hills Resort. The hospital has had some improvements and the road to the border is being repaired but little else seems to be happening.

In Livingstone, the story has been much the same. Our proposed conference facility became merely words on a report. There were stories of an investor developing a new hotel, but that too came to nought.

Livingstone, though, is starting to wake up to the realities of the UNWTO and has allocated funds for road repairs which are desperately needed in the town. The Council has been cleaning drains and planting trees. The improvements at the airport are going on apace and will be ready for August next year.

The Zambian government is working hard with its South African counterparts to stop the requirement for Yellow Fever inoculation for travelers from Zambia to South Africa (this odd requirement came out of the blue from South Africa last year and has caused chaos in the tourism industry). We have not heard what the plans are for visas. Both Zambia and Zimbabwe charge visiting visas and as the delegates to the conference will be border hopping much of the time, it is going to be an expensive exercise for them if they have to pay a visa.

In Zimbabwe, during the past week, the government was not thinking about the UNWTO as they held a conference about its diamond trade. It hoped to gain credibility for its huge diamond mining industry which is said to be around 25% of the world’s output. The conference failed in its credibility quest when it was reported that US$2billion of diamond revenue was unaccounted for.

As Zimbabwe is expected to hold elections next year, the upcoming annual party conference for ZANU-PF, the President’s party, in December will be a critical one. And what better way to host the event than in a brand-new conference facility – not at Victoria Falls as one might expect, but in the midland town of Gweru. The facility is said to have cost US$6.5million.

After all the plans by the Zimbabwe government to showcase its tourism potential in Victoria Falls Town, there has been little actual application. We could think that the government does not have the revenue; that we must understand. But, think again, a new capital is being developed 40 km away from the present capital of Harare in the president’s home area. The new parliament building is already underway.

Zambia has had its own problems with a brand-new government and political party last year. Our ministers in charge of tourism and in charge of the Southern Province have changed like the colors of a chameleon’s skin. And now the Chairman of the Livingstone Tourism Association, Kingsley Lilomono, is getting a bit cross.

Kingsley said: “We do have a big challenge as far as preparations are concerned. From the outside, it appears we do have a local organizing committee. but that is not the case. There is nothing happening on the ground. The only progress we have recorded is the modernization of the Harry Mwaanga International Airport.”

So, with 279 days to go and counting, will we host a successful UNWTO? Yes, and it will be because the private sectors on both sides of the Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River are very professional.