Zimbabwe bridges the tourism divide as visitors return

How is business, I ask him?

Much better, he shouts back. He hooks me up to another rope, tells me not to look down, and we are slowly hoisted back up to the bridge. It is mid-morning, and I am already idiot number 32 to bungee jump from the famous bridge that morning. According to the man from the adventure company responsible for this madness, this is by far the best business they have had in years.

The century-old bridge forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, which share the Victoria Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world.

As Zimbabwe plunged headlong into crisis, Zambia benefited. There are now signs that the Zimbabwe side of the bridge could finally be pulling itself back up again.

Zimbabwe’s tourism went from 1.4-million visitors in 1999, earning the country $777-million, to earning just below $30-million from the 200 000 visitors officially classified as tourists in 2008, when the economic and political crisis peaked.

But official statistics say the economy earned $750-million in 2012 as visitor numbers rose.

Hotel groups that made losses for years are now returning to profitability and domestic tourism is inching upwards, albeit slowly.

Hoping for a better time
Despite the controversy over the recent national election, tour operators are daring to hope for better times. Zimbabwe’s co-hosting of the United Nations World Tourism conference was a major coup, and operators believe there will be some left­over benefits.

“We were already ticking upwards a bit. Now perhaps we can really get going,” says hotel manager Guy Banda.

“We always like it when first-time visitors say how the Zimbabwe they had heard about is totally different from the one they experience.”

The recovery is slower than many operators had hoped for, but it is beginning to tell in the profit figures of some of the country’s top hotel companies.

In June, the Rainbow Tourism Group, one of Zimbabwe’s top three hotel groups, declared a profit for the first time in years. The company swung from a $6-million loss last year to profitability at mid-year. Occupancy had remained below 30% for years, but is now rising.

“We achieved 76% occupancy levels at [flagship hotel] Rainbow Towers in July. We achieved a $3.9-million revenue in July for the first time and our Victoria Falls hotels registered a 100% growth in revenue,” says the company’s chief executive, Tendai Madzivanyika.

Occupancy levels
He sees occupancy levels rising to 50% by the end of the year.

Visitors from France, Spain and Germany dominate the European arrivals, and the town also sees a lot of business from Japan.

Operators have been trying to lure locals to visit. For Christmas, most hotels are already fully booked, mostly with locals. But Victoria Falls is not a cheap destination, which deters many Zimbabweans.

Shearwater, one of the largest tour groups in the town, charges $140 a person for the popular helicopter flights over the falls.

The flights last 13 minutes, and Shearwater runs services throughout the day, carrying up to six people on each flight.

For packages that include plane rides, sunset cruises and tours of the falls, each visitor pays up to $230.

But talk of recovery is quickly tempered by sobering reality.

Just as the UN meeting opened, President Robert Mugabe issued new threats against foreign companies in retaliation for sanctions.

“Just what we needed,” one tour operator said, shaking his head at the newspaper headline. “In our business, image is everything. [Zimbabweans] don’t realise that.”

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Jason Moyo
Guest Author

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