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.
The Falls Today
Provisional figures for the first half of 2016 showed Zimbabwe recorded 902,000 international tourist arrivals, a slight decline on the first half of 2015, rising to 2,167,500 by the year-end, up five percent and generating revenues of $819 million. Arrivals in Zimbabwe are projected to reach over 2.2 million by the close of 2017 and over 2.5 million by 2020 (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, April 2017b).
The Victoria Falls remain one of Africa’s top tourism attractions, with the tourism industry on both sides of the river developing in recent decades into modern first-class tourism destinations of global standing. The immediate area of the Falls survive, at first impression, preserved in their pristine and natural state - but look away from the Falls and the inevitable signs of ‘progress’ and development surround them.
Telephone towers can be seen on the skyline above the Falls (rather unsuccessfully disguised as giant palm trees), hotel buildings lurk on the horizon and lodges crowd the river-frontage. Above the river cruise boats enact a race upstream each evening, jostling for prime position as the sun sets over the Zambezi. Helicopters and microlight planes buzz overhead, the latter often swooping low over the river, islands and gorges. Downstream power-lines cross the gorge and waste-water overflows drain into the river above and below the Falls.
Tourism developments and infrastructure continue to grow and expand, with increasing pressure to develop new activities and services to attract yet more tourists and generate successively higher revenues.
In addition to the obvious direct impacts of development on the immediate environment of the Falls, larger, more complex and challenging issues threaten to change the very nature of the river and Falls themselves. Threats include deforestation, with illegal poaching for firewood, construction and curio carvings a significant local problem; water extraction and pollution, with the fragile habitat of the Falls Rainforest at threat from diminished volumes of localised rain and water quality threatened by sewage discharges from human settlements; the introduction and spread of non-native invasive plant species which again threaten the ecology of the Rainforest; and the spectre of the proposed Batoka Gorge dam development downstream, which threatens to flood the spectacular gorges below the Falls.
The protected area surrounding the Falls has been steadily eroded over the decades as the various reserves and protected areas have been redesignated. Areas of human settlement have expanded, with increasing impacts on the surrounding buffer zones. The town of Victoria Falls is now home to 33,748 residents (ZIMSTAT, 2012), with the supporting suburban areas of Chinotimba and Mkhosana - developed on the site of the old Sprayview Aerodrome - expanding rapidly in recent years.
The Falls are, however, still surrounded by wildlife and wilderness areas. Elephant are often seen around, and sometimes even in, town, being attracted to well-watered suburban gardens for a feast of fruit trees and other seasonal favourites.
In recent years they have become increasingly problematic for the town’s human inhabitants, having learnt to lean on walls to break entry into the most desirable gardens and causing much damage (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Feb 2013b).
In December 2014 warnings were issued around town after the local herd of buffalo, often to be found along Zambezi Drive and at the Safari Lodge waterhole, were chased into the suburbs of town by a visiting pride of lions. The herd were eventually ushered out of town by Park Authorities supported by VFAPU rangers, and the lions obligingly followed
“There has been a huge herd of Buffalo that has been chased into town by lions. This herd has now split up and half the herd is around the ZIMRA/Victoria Falls Court and the other herd is next to Cresta Sprayview. There have also been sightings of the lions in town.” (Victoria Falls Guide, 2015)
In June 2016 the town municipality announced a $6 million road regeneration project, including a proposal to rename many of the town’s old roads originally named after key characters in the history of the town’s early tourism development, including Clark, Dale, Giese, Hobson, Imbault, Soper, Spencer and others. After due consideration, and some shared research into the early history of tourism to the Falls, it was decided to retain the old street names. The two main roads in the town, however, Livingstone Way and Park Way, are due to be renamed Robert Mugabe Way and Joshua Nkomo Way respectively to honour the country’s two main independence heroes.
Over the years there have been several attempts to encourage debate over the re-naming of the Falls, with some suggesting that their globally known English name should be abandoned, most recently in late 2013. The alternative name often suggested, ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya,’ is already strongly associated with tourism to the Zambian side of the river (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Dec 2013).
A Load of Rubbish
Increasing volumes of trash, from cans, bottles, fast-food wrappers and plastic bags to household and sometimes even business and industrial waste is illegally dumped in the open bush surrounding the town, promoting community groups and tourism operators to organise regular voluntary litter clearing collections.
Management of the town’s waste has long been problematic, with a large open landfill site on the outskirts of town the ultimate destination for the estimated 3,300 tonnes of rubbish generated annually by residents, tourists and supporting industries. The ingestion of plastic bags was linked to the death of at least eight elephants habituated to feeding on waste food found at the dump in early 2016, resulting in calls for the site to be properly fenced.
A fundraising campaign was launched by concerned local residents and local conservation organisations, and with the support of an online crowd funding campaign and input from the tourism sector (including significant financial support from Shearwater Adventures, who contributed fifty percent of the necessary funds), an electric fence was installed around the site at the end of 2016 (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, March 2016).
The Shearwater Explorers Village opened in late 2016, a new $1.2 million development on the old tethered balloon site and providing camping for over 100 and 32 air-conditioned bedrooms, with plans to expand to 64 beds by the middle of 2017. Aimed at overland groups and independent travellers, the central complex includes restaurant, bar, pool and shop (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, April 2017a).
Bridges and Borders
The Victoria Falls Bridge remains an essential transport and trade link connecting Zambia and Zimbabwe, the busy road, rail and foot crossing accessed through two border control posts on either bank. Recent upgrades to border facilities on both sides have increased light pollution impacts, negatively affecting the nocturnal viewing of the lunar rainbow on both sides of the river.
The development of the Kazungula Bridge, at an estimated construction cost of $259.3 million and linking Botswana and Zambia, will hopefully divert some of the high volume of freight and other heavy goods vehicles which currently queue daily to clear border controls and cross the Falls Bridge. The bridge is currently in the early stages of construction and is planned to open in December 2018.
Tourists and residents on both sides of the Falls have to go through tedious border formalities, with associated visa restrictions and vehicle charges. The year-long introduction of a trial tourism ‘Univisa’ in December 2014, allowing unrestricted travel on both sides of the river, was welcomed as a success by tourists and industry. After a lapsed period following the trial the Univisa was finally re-introduced in late 2016 (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, July 2016). An emerging trend in recent years appears to be the growth of day trippers visiting from neighbouring countries of Botswana and Zambia.
Concerns over high levels of water extraction from the river were highlighted with news stories that the Falls were ‘running dry,’ with especially low water levels over the Eastern Cataract during recent dry seasons. An initiative to reduce extraction levels for the hydro-electric power station during these dry periods appears to have been abandoned. UNESCO reports estimate that to operate at full capacity the plant requires between 44-87 percent of the typical dry-season flow:
“This level of water abstraction is clearly affecting the visual impact and aesthetic value of the property... and may be having other long-term impacts such as degradation of the adjacent rainforest as a result of reduced spray at critical times.” (UNESCO, 2012)
Whilst energy demands require Zambian authorities to maintain extraction levels and power production during the dry season, generation is occasionally turned off for short periods. Often coinciding with visits of ‘VIPs’ to the Falls, the suspension in effect ‘turns-on’ the Falls, with noticeably higher flows over the eastern end.
Into The Future
The Victoria Falls are often compared with those of Niagara, being viewed favourably in comparison by those who find the commercial development of the North American falls as detracting from their natural impact and beauty. With the search for ever increasing tourism arrivals, however, it appears inevitable that pressure will continue to develop further tourism infrastructure, facilities and services on both sides of the river.
The expansion of the Victoria Falls Airport has initiated a flurry of activity from the tourism sector. The increased handling capacity of the airport has resulted in predictions of an additional 80,000 tourism arrivals a year, with ZTA CEO Karikoga Kaseke highlighting the need for an additional 1,000 rooms at the resort by 2020. Arrivals, however, remain distinctly seasonal, and whilst new developments will increase overall capacity, average occupancies are likely to remain low.
Unsympathetic developments continue threaten the fragile nature of the Falls and its surroundings. Heath, writing in the late 1970s, highlighted that the growth of Victoria Falls town had followed a pattern of planning adapting to, and following, development, rather than controlling and limiting it:
“It would be unfortunate if the trend, which has characterised the village throughout this century, of planning reflecting individual enterprise rather than guiding and controlling it, should be allowed to continue.” (Heath, 1977)
It is, however, a pattern which continues to this day, with controversial developments seemingly often overriding environmental concerns and planning guidelines. Once developments are established they inevitably evolve and expand, creating far larger impacts than when originally planned.
Widespread concern was raised over the proposed Santonga development, first announced in 2007 and relaunched in late 2014 by Africa Albida Tourism as part of the expansion of their Victoria Falls Safari Lodge Estate. The $12 million project, presented as an educational ‘eco-park’ attraction, will be one of the most significant new developments within the immediate vicinity of the Falls since the construction of the Safari Lodge itself - if allowed to go ahead (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, April 2015).
Commenting on the wider tourism development of the Falls, Ross Kennedy, Chief Executive of Africa Albida Tourism, highlighted the responsibility to manage growth in a balanced manner:
“Some may believe Victoria Falls is better left as it is while others will embrace the counter argument that ‘growth is necessary and good.’ But what matters is that growth is inevitable, so both the public and the private sector must be responsible, accountable and caring in managing such expansion.” (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Nov 2015)
Government plans, announced in 2013, for a proposed $460 million ‘African Disneyland’ on a 1,200 hectare site close to the airport have also received widespread criticism, with the proposal including the development of modern shopping malls, hotels, banks, and conference, exhibition and entertainment facilities aimed to attract major business conferences and events (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Aug 2013).
In June 2016 the Zimbabwe Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister, Walter Mzembi, was reported in the national press describing Victoria Falls as a potential $4.8 billion ‘cash-cow,’ quoting an average per tourist spend of $1,200 and predicting an incredible 4 million annual visitors to both sides of the river (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, June 2016).
Victoria Falls Municipality have also announced plans to develop a Civic Centre, shopping mall, convention centre, five-star hotel and theme park in the centre of Victoria Falls, redeveloping the central plots currently home to the Falls Rest Camp and Municipality offices. In September 2016 it was reported that a Memorandum of Understanding had been signed with a South African developer and a local construction company to develop plans for the multi-million dollar complex. The development threatens a significant area of green space within the town, with extensive grounds and many fine tree specimens under threat of being ripped up and replaced with concrete buildings and parking lots (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Sept 2016).
The largest shadow, however, hanging over the future conservation of the Falls and its surrounds perhaps comes in the shape of the Batoka Gorge Hydro-Project, first proposed in the 1950s and currently undergoing a revised feasibility review. The proposed dam, some 50 kilometres downstream from the Falls, would flood the gorges below the Falls, forever changing their unique nature and bringing to an end commercial white-water rafting (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Feb 2013a).
There is no doubt that despite its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the Victoria Falls and immediate surrounding areas are currently under threat from the most intensive development pressures it has ever faced, on both sides of the river. Let us hope, however, that money does not do all the talking when it comes to the future development of the Falls, and that the priceless natural aspects of this global wonder, including the wilderness which surrounds them and wildlife that frequents them, are valued and preserved for future generations. There is a saying often applied to nature reserves and national parks - ‘take only photographs, leave only footprints.’ We owe it to future generations to ensure the footprints we leave today are as transient and ephemeral as possible.