To The Victoria Falls
Development of the Victoria Falls
The following text is adapted from 'Footsteps Through Time - A History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls', researched and written by Peter Roberts and due for publication in early 2017. Please visit the Zambezi Book Company website for more information.
A new political landscape emerged in Zimbabwe after the disputed elections of March 2008, resulting the formation of the Government of National Unity, signed between the three main political parties (ZANU-PF and the two divided factions of the Movement for Democratic Change) on 15th September 2008.
Nationwide Zimbabwe received only 1,956,000 tourism arrivals in 2008, rising slightly to 2,017,000 in 2009. Arrivals from South Africa declined 31 percent, attributed to negative media publicity of political violence during the build up to elections and a cholera outbreak in Harare in the second half of 2008 (Mugwati, Nkala and Mashiri, 2016). Annual average occupancy at the main Hotels in the Falls remained low, at 20 percent in 2007, 25 percent in 2008 and 24 percent in 2009 (USAID, 2013).
Difficult economic operating conditions made challenging work for the tourism sector. Years of quantitative easing and escalating hyper-inflation finally resulting in the collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar. At the height of the crisis in 2008 and menu prices at the Falls Hotel had to be changed hourly to keep up with inflation. Staff salaries became virtually worthless and stores and stocks impossible to source.
“In 2008, when annual inflation peaked at 89.7 sextillion percent - that’s roughly 9 followed by 22 zeros - a single egg could cost well over a billion dollars, assuming you could find one.” (Financial Times, 2016)
The currency was redenominated three times (in 2006, 2008 and 2009), with banknotes of up to $100 trillion issued in early 2009, providing a new range of novelty souvenirs for tourists.
One casualty of the situation was the ultralight flight over the Victoria Falls originally established by Bush Birds Safaris in the 1990s and later part of the Shearwater portfolio of activities. Unable to secure the necessary insurances the fleet of two ultralight planes and a specially customised ultralight float-plane (offering a uniquely breathtaking experience) was suspended in June 2007.
The US dollar was subsequently adopted in 2009 as the main trading currency within a multi-currency market, marking the turning point in the economic crisis with stability slowly returning to the trading markets and the steady recovery of tourism.
The unity government ended in June 2013 with elections held in July under a new constitution, returning ZANU-PF to full government. The Zimbabwe dollar was finally officially decommissioned in 2015 at a rate of 35 quadrillion (Z$35,000,000,000,000,000) to one US dollar (Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, 2015).
In 2007 Wild Horizons, originally established as Zambezi Fishing Safaris in 1982 and renamed in 1987, merged with white-water rafting company Adrift and African Sport and Leisure to form a single company offering a portfolio tourism activities.
The Wild Horizons Estate, a fenced privately managed wilderness concession within the Victoria Falls National Park, opened operations in 2007, relocating from the old Woodlands Estate.
The Wild Horizons Wildlife Trust was formed in 2008 to support local wildlife conservation management initiatives, including a flagship project establishing a specialist modern veterinary laboratory and rehabilitation facility. The Trust was renamed the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust in 2012.
Making a Plan
A key landmark in the management of the Victoria Falls/Mosi-oa-Tunya World Heritage Site was the adoption of a joint five-year management plan, signed by Zambian and Zimbabwean counterparts in 2007, seventeen years after the designation of the site. The plan covers issues of transboundary coordination, management of urban and tourism facilities and funding schemes. The UNESCO imposed moratorium on development within the WHS was lifted in 2008.
A proposal for a tethered balloon located 3 kilometres northeast of the Victoria Falls on the north bank was rejected on the basis of its visual impact on the skyline. The project was resubmitted several times, on different potential sites, without success. A subsequent proposal for an amphibious vehicle (‘amphicoach’) was also rejected.
Reaching the Limit
In 2009 news reports highlighted concerns over noise pollution from helicopter flights over the Victoria Falls, stirred by proposals to issue further licenses to new operators and to increase the number allowed to fly at any one time. Two major hotels formerly complained to the World Heritage Commission regarding the high levels of intrusion caused by noise pollution levels over the town.
Karl Snater, General Manager of the Victoria Falls Hotel, recorded:
“On behalf of the Victoria Falls Hotel, I would like to register a complaint against the helicopters and the noise they produce which has a negative impact on the environment and likewise destroys the atmosphere in our hotel and grounds. Daily we have to endure the noise and constant irritation from these aircraft which fly directly over and above the Hotel. If one considers that current hotel occupancies are running at approximately 20% of capacity surely when normal higher occupancies return the environment cannot sustain the impact of the increased flights, increased operators and increased frequency of the helicopters.” (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, June 2009)
Guests at the Kingdom and Victoria Falls Hotel recorded the noise intrusion as ‘a nuisance.’ At the time eight helicopters were operating over the Victoria Falls, five from Zambia, with Batoka Skies managing three helicopters and United Air Charters two, and the Zambezi Helicopter Company (part of the Shearwater portfolio of companies) operating three helicopters from the Elephant Hills helipad in Zimbabwe.
A World Heritage Committee monitoring mission to the site in November 2006 observed:
“The World Heritage Centre and IUCN observed during the mission that high visitor rates are causing noise pollution from helicopters, microlight aircraft, and boats. In addition, aquatic wildlife is constantly disturbed by riparian activities.” (UNESCO, 2007)
Concerns were yet again expressed over the volume of visitors to the resort, especially the number of boats on the river.
“It is also believed that the river has reached its maximum carrying capacity. As a result, the river is characterized by crowding, which tends to obstruct tourists view... This will negatively impact on visitors’ satisfaction. Noise pollution is another problem at the resort, for example low-flying aircraft.” (Rogerson, 2009)
In 2012 a new operator, Bonisair, launched flights on the south bank from a newly developed helipad with two helicopters. The Chamabondo helipad is located to the south of the town with flight-paths designed to comply with World Heritage Commission requirements to reduce the noise impacts over the town and its surrounds, but has conversely increased overall volume of flights being operated and impacts of noise pollution over a wider area of the Falls environments.
On the Up
The Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) reported a healthy increase in national tourist arrivals in 2010, with figures for the year reaching 2,239,000, credited to the positive effects of national political and economic stability and the regional benefits of the FIFA World Cup hosted in South Africa. Of the total international arrivals received by Zimbabwe in 2010, Africa contributed 87 percent followed by Europe (six percent), the Americas (three percent) and Asia (two percent). Visitors from Oceania and the Middle East contributed less than two percent. Annual tourism receipts rose to $634 million from $523 million in 2009.
Visitors to the Victoria Falls Rainforest reached 141,113 during 2010, an increase from 116,223 the previous year. The Zambezi National Park received 58,598 visitors, up from 47,450 in 2009. Average annual hotel occupancy in the Falls remained low at 28 percent in 2010 and 2011, reflecting the continuing high seasonality in tourism (USAID, 2013).
The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority partnered with local activity provider Shearwater Adventures, trading through the Zambezi Helicopter Company, in a much needed, yet controversial, redevelopment of the Victoria Falls Park visitor reception facilities in 2010. The most significant element of the development was the construction of a new restaurant and supporting kitchen facilities. The original information displays and sales area were replaced by a modern commercial trading shop selling high-value tourism souvenirs. An outdoor interpretation and information area was developed, with detailed displays on the natural history and formation of the Falls.
The project divided opinion and attracted a substantial amount negative publicity and media coverage. Stakeholders in the town’s tourism sector argued that there had been no formal Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) undertaken and no public notification or consultation ahead of the development.
Even government authorities clashed, reigniting a long-running dispute over management the Falls. Sensing an opportunity, the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, with the support of Zimbabwe Republic Police, took control of the Falls Park facilities and closed the restaurant, effectively reclaiming management of the Victoria Falls Special Area. After a short period of impasse, and a government ruling, the Rainforest returned to the control of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. The restaurant facilities reopened after receiving endorsement from UNESCO, their report concluding the restaurant added ‘value to the Falls.’
Additional plans for a proposed $6 million major development of the ‘VIP Entrance’ beside the Devil’s Cataract, including restaurant, shopping and conference facilities overlooking the edge of the Falls, appear to have been quietly shelved (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Nov 2010).
The Elephant Camp
In 2010 Wild Horizons launched a new $1 million luxury safari camp, The Elephant Camp, located within the Wild Horizons Estate. The initial development consisted of 12 luxurious, tailor-made tented units. A new extension, Elephant Camp West, opened in April 2015, consisting of four tented suites overlooking the gorges below the Falls.