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. The Victoria Falls remain one of Africa’s top draw-cards, with the tourism industry on both sides of the river evolving into modern first-class tourism destinations.
The immediate region of the Falls area survive, at first impression, preserved in their pristine and natural state, but the days of describing the Falls as untouched since ‘Dr Livingstone first saw them’ are, sadly, long gone.
Look away from the Falls and the inevitable signs of ‘progress’ surround the Falls. 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 upstream of the Falls. Downstream power-lines cross the gorge and waste-water overflows drain into the river above and below the Falls. Helicopters and microlight planes buzz overhead, the latter often swooping low over the river, islands and gorges.
On the river cruise boats enact a race upstream each evening, jostling for prime position as the sun sets over the Zambezi. Waves from speeding boats erode fragile sand banks and islands, threatening endangered ground nesting birds such as the African skimmer and rock pratincole. Wildlife along the river is regularly disturbed by the close presence of a succession of tourist boats, all trying to give their clients the best photographic and viewing opportunities. Screaming rafters, bungee jumpers and gorge-swingers similarly disturb breeding birds in the gorges below the Falls - home to the endangered taita falcon and rare Verreaux’s eagle.
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 higher revenues. Unfavourable taxation of the tourism sector and political and economic uncertainty, however, continue to undermine the slow revival in Zimbabwe’s tourism fortunes.
In addition to the obvious impacts of development on the immediate environment of the Falls, larger, more complex and challenging issues, such as water extraction and pollution, the introduction and invasion of non-native invasive plant species, and the spectre of the proposed Batoka Gorge dam development downstream, threaten to change the very nature of the river and Falls themselves.
The protected area surrounding the Falls has been steadily eroded, as the various reserves, special areas and national parks have been redesignated. 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 old Sprayview Aerodrome site, expanding rapidly in recent decades.
The town is, 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.
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 problematical, with a large open landfill site on the outskirts of town the ultimate destination for rubbish generated by residents and industry. The ingestion of plastic bags was recently linked with the death of six elephants habituated to feeding on waste food found at the dumpsite, resulting in calls for the site to be properly fenced and a campaign launched by local conservation organisations in early 2016 in an attempt to raise the necessary $50,000 from public donations (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, March 2016).
Bridges and Borders
The Victoria Falls Bridge continues to be an essential transport and trade link connecting Zambia and Zimbabwe, the busy road and railway crossing accessed through two border control posts on either bank. Light pollution from security lighting at the border posts on either side of the bridge continues to be a problem, 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 introduction of a tourism ‘Univisa’ in December 2014, allowing unrestricted travel on both sides of the river was welcomed by tourists, but was sadly not extended after its initial year-long trial phase, although there are hopes that it may be re-introduced in late 2016 (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, June 2016).
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, the station 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 have often been 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, expanding capacity to accommodate additional peak-season visitors. Arrivals, however, remain distinctly seasonal, and whilst new developments increase overall capacity, average occupancies are unlikely to rise significantly.
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 influencing and controlling 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).
Government plans, announced in 2013, for a proposed $460 million ‘African Disneyland’ on a 1,200 hectares 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). Zimbabwe’s political and economic situation remains critical, and tourism a vital source of foreign currency.
The largest shadow hanging over the future conservation of the Falls and its surrounds comes from 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, has the potential to flood the gorges below the Falls, bringing to an end commercial white-water rafting and forever changing their unique nature (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Feb 2013).
These proposals threaten to erode the natural magic of the Falls through over-development, rising population pressures and higher visitor numbers, and steadily the increasing environmental impacts.
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.’ It is up to all of us to ensure the footprints we leave today are as transient and ephemeral as possible.