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 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)
One casualty of the situation was the ultralight flight over the Falls originally established by Bush Birds Safaris in the 1990s and later part of the Shearwater portfolio of activities. Unable to secure the necessary international insurance cover the fleet of two ultralight planes and a specially customised ultralight float-plane (offering a uniquely breathtaking experience) was suspended in June 2007.
The currency was redenominated three times (in 2006, 2008 and 2009), with banknotes of up to $100 trillion (one with 14 zeros), the highest numerical value legal tender ever issued in the world, issued in early 2009, and providing collectors and tourists a range of new novelty souvenirs. 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 economy 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 of tourism activities.
The Wild Horizons Estate, a fenced privately managed wilderness concession within the Victoria Falls National Park, also opened operations in 2007. 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 wildlife rehabilitation facility. The Trust was renamed the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust in 2012.
Making a Plan
A key landmark in the joint 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 adopted a unified vision for the site:
“To ensure the integrity and long-term survival of the physical, natural and cultural resources of the Victoria Falls/Mosi-oa-Tunya World Heritage Site, and the water area around it, for the enjoyment and benefit of Zambia and Zimbabwe, the local urban and rural communities, and the national and international visitors.” (Victoria Falls World Heritage Site, 2007)
In 1996 it had been noted by UNESCO that ‘the falls being a major attraction, urban infrastructure developments, tourism facilities and services may impact the property’s integrity and therefore need to be carefully managed not to compromise the exceptional beauty and Outstanding Universal Value of the property.’ 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 three kilometres northeast of the 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 proposal for an amphibious vehicle (‘amphicoach’) was also rejected.
A new two storey 77-room four-star lodge, the David Livingstone Safari Lodge and Spa opened on the northern bank in April 2008, with rooms offering views of the river and including five luxury suites.
Reaching the Limit
In 2009 news reports highlighted concerns over noise pollution from helicopter flights over the Falls, stirred by proposals to issue further licenses to new operators and to increase the numbers allowed to fly at any one time from five to up to 20.
Several major hotels formerly complained to the World Heritage Commission regarding the high levels of disturbance already caused by excessive 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 Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, Elephant Hills, Kingdom and Falls Hotels often recorded the noise intrusions as ‘a nuisance.’ At the time eight helicopters were in operation at the 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 also 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, initially operating two helicopters. The Chamabondo helipad is located to the south of the town to comply with World Heritage Commission requirements to reduce overall noise impacts, with flight paths bypassing the town and approaching the Falls from the gorges. The new helipad has, however, resulted in an increased number of flights being operated, longer flying times and wider impacts of noise pollution and disturbance over the area downstream of the Falls - in addition to the existing flight paths above the Falls still being in operation.
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, largely credited to the regional benefits of the FIFA Football World Cup tournament hosted by 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. Average annual hotel occupancy in the Falls, however, remained low at 28 percent in 2010 and 2011, reflecting the continuing high seasonality in tourism (USAID, 2013).
Visitors to the 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. The site of the old Falls Craft Village, closed for several years, was redeveloped with the construction of the N1 Hotel, opened with 15 rooms in December 2010, now expanded to 30 rooms.
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 Falls Park visitor reception facilities in 2010.
The development included the conversion of the information centre into a modern commercial store selling high-value tourism souvenirs and the construction of a visitor restaurant and supporting facilities. An outdoor interpretation and information area was developed, with detailed displays on the natural history and formation of the Falls, as well as upgrading of toilets and other visitor facilities.
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 undertaken, with no public notification or consultation ahead of the development.
Even government authorities clashed, the development reigniting a long-running dispute over management the Rainforest. Sensing an advantage, the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, with the support of Zimbabwe Republic Police, took control of the Falls Park visitor facilities, reclaiming their legal management of the Victoria Falls Special Area, and closed the restaurant. After a short period of impasse, and an eventual government ruling, the Rainforest returned to the control of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and the restaurant facilities reopened after receiving clearance from UNESCO.
Additional plans for a proposed $6 million 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 suspended (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 lodge units. A new extension, the Elephant Camp West, opened in April 2015, consisting of four tented suites overlooking the gorges below the Falls.