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.
Regeneration and Renewal
Recent years have seen encouraging signs of recovery in Zimbabwe’s tourism industry, with 867,000 tourist visitors recorded in the first half of 2014 and year end arrivals of 1,880,000, despite the Ebola epidemic casting a shadow over travel to the continent. The country recorded a marginal decline in total annual tourism revenues to $827 million.
The tourism town of Victoria Falls was also experiencing regeneration, with several hotels investing in significant refurbishments and expansions. A long neglected corner, in the centre of town, the old Wimpy restaurant was redeveloped as the Shearwater Café, opened in August 2014.
Peak-season tourism arrivals were returning to the levels of the late 1990s, with the major hotels at Victoria Falls enjoying occupancy rates of 77 percent in August 2014, up from 62 percent in the same month in 2013. Mr Kennedy of Africa Albida Tourism reported a record month for their flagship property, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, achieving the highest occupancy figures since it opened in 1994.
“This is a sure sign that Zimbabwe tourism, and the destination are rapidly turning a corner, after three years of positive growth,” Mr Kennedy reported (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Sept 2014).
Annual tourism visitors to the Falls Rainforest reached close to the 200,000 mark. Average annual room occupancy, however, fell to 49 percent from 53 percent in 2013 (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, March 2015).
In mid 2012 the Jafuta Heritage Centre opened at the Elephant’s Walk complex, free to visitors and displaying a comprehensive collection of traditional cultural artefacts and information on the human history of the Falls region. The Centre is managed by the Jafuta Foundation, a non-profit organisation with the aim of preserving the traditional cultural and material history of the region.
Safari Lodge Celebrates Twenty Years
Victoria Falls Safari Lodge celebrated twenty years of operation with a significant $1 million refurbishment, including an upgrade of all 72 rooms, completed in July 2014. The Africa Albida Tourism complex now included the six luxury Victoria Falls Safari Suites (converted from six of the existing Lokuthula Lodge units and opened in December 2013), the exclusive 20-room Victoria Falls Safari Club (development at a cost of $2.7 million and opened in August 2012), the as well as the original Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and Lokuthula Lodges.
In December 2014 Wild Horizons opened the new Lookout Café, part of a redevelopment of their gorge activity centre, perched overlooking the second and third gorges below the Falls. The development included a rebuild and expansion of the existing thatched structure, landscaped terraced gardens and the clearance of a large area of natural bush for customer car parking.
The gorge activity centre was originally developed in 2001 with the construction of a small thatched building and installation of high-wire infrastructure across the gorges, offering a bungee swing, zip-line and abseiling activities. The centre expanded its activities with the introduction of zip-line ‘canopy tour’ in the bend of the second and third gorges in mid 2013.
Pressure to develop new commercial tourism projects and products continues to drive the development of the local Falls environment, in many cases resulting in proposals unsympathetic and inappropriate to its protected National Park status and UNESCO World Heritage listing. Proposals rejected by UNESCO in recent years including bids to operate tethered observation balloons, an amphibious vehicle, and, most recently, a viewing wheel development overlooking the Falls from the northern bank. The south side has also seen attempts to develop a cable car facility into the gorge and many other projects, including a proposal to reopen tours to Cataract Island, the last remaining fragment of the Rainforest untouched by modern tourism pressures (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Dec 2016).
In late 2014 Zimbabwe Tourism Authority Chief Executive Officer, Karikoga Kaseke controversially proposed that Zimbabwe and Zambia should even forego the UNESCO listing of the Falls and instead maximise commercial revenues.
“We don’t need the Falls to remain a natural world heritage site as stipulated by United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). We need to go the Niagara Falls way and make money for our people and our economies. We can gain a lot of benefits if we commercialise it... We need to electrify Victoria Falls and start running it on 24 hours basis instead of closing the premises in the night.” (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Nov 2014)
Mr Kaseke said Niagara Falls attracted $30 billion annually, compared to less than $500,000 at the Victoria Falls for Zimbabwe and Zambia. Mr Kaseke expanded that Victoria Falls had potential to raise more revenue from tourists if the Falls Park had electric lighting to enable night-time visits, steady water flows, restaurants, accommodation facilities and other modern amenities like the case at Niagara Falls. Chief Mukuni countered that tourists around the world travelled to the Falls to see them in their natural form, undeveloped and untouched by commercial development.
“In my opinion, we should keep the Falls as natural as possible and not commercialise it.” (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Nov 2014)
The first half of 2015 started strongly, with the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority recording 930,250 national tourism arrivals in the first six months of the year, with year-end figures reaching 2,056,500. African travellers contributed the majority - 1.76 million visitors - with overseas arrivals accounting for just 14 percent - the Americas 76,751, Asia 35,000, Europe 149,000, the Middle East 3,990 and Oceania 25,000 (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Feb 2016).
Visitor figures for the Falls recorded significant increases in tourist numbers, with combined totals of 353,025 in 2014 and 544,104 and 2015 (Victoria Falls World Heritage Site Joint Report 2014). Occupancy levels from the ten leading tourism hotels on the south bank of the Falls recorded a small drop of 2% over the same period, and entry numbers to the Rainforest declined 2.6% (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Feb 2016). Unfavourable government taxation policies, including a new 15% tax on hotel accommodation for foreign tourists, imposed at short notice at the beginning of the year, negatively affected predictions of increased growth.
In the face of a challenging operating conditions Africa Sun Ltd shifted its business emphasis away from direct hotel operation toward a hotel investment and management model, resulting in the appointment of Legacy Hospitality Management Services Ltd to manage the operation of The Kingdom and Elephant Hills Hotel (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Sept 2015).
Ilala Lodge Spreads its Wings
Ilala Lodge began a significant extension in November 2014 with the development of a new three-storey wing (raising the profile of the previously two-storey building), adding an additional 20 deluxe rooms and two executive suites, and expanding the hotel to a total of 56 rooms. The new wing opened in October 2015.
Tourism operators in the Falls have in recent years increasingly adopted positive ‘eco-tourism’ principles, aiming to minimise environmental impacts and supporting conservation and community initiatives in the local area. From an emphasis on the ‘green building’ of new developments, minimising environmental impacts across all levels of the construction process, to the ‘greening’ of everyday operations, many tourism operators and accommodation providers are recognising they need to take active steps to minimise the impacts of their operations on the environment.
The Victoria Falls Green Fund, launched in February 2010 by Environment Africa, aims to encourage development of the Falls as a premier ‘green destination’ for tourism. Supported by contributions from local tourism operators the funds raised, including a $1 per bed-night contribution from participating hotels, are invested in local conservation and community based projects that promote sustainable development in an environmentally friendly manner.
In early 2016 several leading accommodation providers partnered with Green-Tourism.com in a trial project to encourage industry adoption of sustainable eco-tourism management practices. Cresta Sprayview, Pioneers Camp, The Victoria Falls Hotel, Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and Wild Horizons Elephant Camp are all working towards green tourism accreditation under the pioneering scheme.
A new chapter in travel and transport to the Victoria Falls began in April 2013 with the commencement of significant $150 million redevelopment and expansion of the Victoria Falls International Airport, partially opened at the end of 2015 and officially opened by President Robert Mugabe on 18th November 2016. Works included the construction of an extended four kilometre runway and associated taxiways, the construction of new terminal buildings with air-traffic control tower and supporting emergency services.
The new airport runway, expanded from a length of 2,200 metres to 4,000 metres and doubled in width to 60 metres, and will allow international travellers to fly directly to Victoria Falls, accommodating the Boeing 747 and new generation of wide-bodied aircraft. The new terminal building has been designed to handle 1.2 million international travellers (compared to the previous capacity of 400,000) and 500,000 domestic passengers per annum. Concerns have been expressed, however, on the destination attracting the volume of traffic and travellers required to support the new facilities.