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 regeneration in the tourism town of Victoria Falls, with several hotels investing in significant refurbishments and expansions. The site of the old Victoria Falls Craft Village, closed for several years, was redeveloped with the construction of the N2 Motel. A long neglected corner, in the centre of town, the old Wimpy restaurant was redeveloped as the Shearwater Café, opened in August 2014.
Zimbabwe received 867,000 tourist visitors in the first half of 2014 and year end arrivals reached 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 earnings to $827 million.
Peak-season tourism arrivals were returning to the levels of the late 1990s, with the group of ‘top ten’ hotels at Victoria Falls enjoying occupancy rates of 77 percent in August 2014, up from 62 percent in the same period in 2013. Mr Kennedy of Africa Albida Tourism reported an increase in arrivals culminated in 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 in 2014 with a $1 million refurbishment, including an upgrade of all 72 rooms, completed in July 2014. The Africa Albida Tourism Safari Lodge 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, 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 Victoria Falls. The development included a rebuild and expansion of the existing thatched structure, landscaped terraced gardens and the clearance of a large area of 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, and offering bungee swing, zip-line activities and abseiling on a site overlooking the second gorge. The activity centre expanded its activities in the gorges with the introduction of canopy zip-line tours in the bend of the second and third gorges in mid 2013.
Decline of Rail
National news reports in August 2014 highlighted concerns over the decline of the railway system, with the National Railways of Zimbabwe in need of $50 million for urgent maintenance of the Bulawayo and Victoria Falls line. With passenger safety at potential risk it was even suggested that services could be suspended indefinitely. Nationwide it was claimed that the railway system required investment of “about $400 million in the short to medium term to revitalise its operations and about $10 billion in the next 10 years to reach full, safe and reliable operating capacity.” (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, August 2015)
Money, Money, Money
In late 2014 ZTA Chief Executive, Mr Kaseke controversially proposed that Zimbabwe and Zambia should forego the UNESCO listing of the Falls and instead maximise commercial revenues, quoting the example of Niagara Falls in North America.
“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 Victoria 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)
Ups and Downs
The first half of 2015 started strongly, with the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority recording 930,250 national tourism arrivals in the first six months of 2015, 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).
In contrast industry recorded occupancy levels from the leading hotels in the Victoria Falls recorded a small drop in average occupancy of two percent. Unfavourable government taxation policies, including a new tax on hotel accommodation for foreign tourists imposed at short notice at the beginning of the year, negatively affecting predictions of increased growth. Ross Kennedy commented:
“According to hotel statistics kept by ten leading hotels in Victoria Falls, room occupancy was only down 2% between 2014 and 2015, and entry numbers to the Victoria Falls Rainforest were down 2.6% year on year.” (Victoria Falls Bits and Blogs, Feb 2016).
Africa Sun Ltd, operators of the Elephant Hills and Kingdom Hotels, and joint partners in The Victoria Falls Hotel, retrenched over 200 staff nationwide in an attempt to offset declining tourism revenues. In Sept 2015 the company shifted its business model away from direct hotel operation toward a hotel investment and management company, resulting in the appointment of Legacy Hospitality Management Services Ltd, part of Legacy Hotels and Resorts, to manage the operation of The Kingdom and Elephant Hills Hotel.
Ilala Lodge Spreads its Wings
Ilala Lodge began a significant extension in November 2014 with the development of a new three-storey wing, 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 Victoria Falls have in recent years increasingly adopted positive ‘eco-tourism’ principles, 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, showcased by the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, to the ‘greening’ of everyday operations many tourism operators and accommodation providers are taking active steps to minimise the impacts of their operations on the environment and to invest in local communities. There is, however, much more that needs to be done to address community issues and environmental impacts caused by tourism.
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 Airport, partially opened at the end of 2015 and due for full and official opening in late 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 Victoria Falls Airport runway, expanded from a length of 2,200 metres to 4,000 metres and doubled in width to 60 metres, has capacity to handle the Airbus A380, currently the world’s largest passenger airliner and will allow international travellers to fly directly to Victoria Falls. 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 increased services.