Last year I wrote a destination guide for an Afrikaans Sunday newspaper on Victoria Falls. After I had tweeted the link, the comments started coming in, few of them positive. The gist of most of the tweets was that it is better to visit the Zambian side than to support Zimbabwe’s tourism industry.
The recent news, in which the country is also selling elephant calves and sable antelope to zoos in China and the UAE, has made a lot of people angry. Zimbabwe has an image problem in the tourism industry, and I know quite a few people that’s hesitant to visit the country because they do not support the political ideologies of its leaders. It’s a hot topic and most people I talk to would choose to boycott the country.
After attending the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge (on the Zimbabwean side) 20th birthday celebrations in December, I again realised the impact of tourism on the country’s economy, especially on grassroots level. I’ve visited the country several times in the past few years. I’m planning a road trip to Hwange and the Mana Pools in September, and it’s a destination I would not think twice about recommending to my readers and audience.
At the moment, Zimbabwe’s the comeback kid in the global tourism industry. The New York Times recently voted it as one of their must-see destinations for 2015 and a new airport is opening in Victoria Falls in August. The new airport will have a capacity for much larger aircraft and will make this small town one of Southern Africa’s most important tourism hubs. The amount of tourists visiting Vic Falls has also doubled in the past four years.
It’s never a good idea to boycott a country, based on the decisions of its leaders. I will think twice about boycotting a country, (and a few times more) before I decide to put it on a blacklist. Not all citizens support the decisions of their country’s leader. If the rest of the world decides not to support South Africa as a destination because they don’t approve of President Jacob Zuma’s policies, a lot of people will be in trouble. It will impact the tannie with the guest house on the Garden Route, to waiters and cleaners who work in the hospitality industry.
It has a ripple effect on people and their families, with people on grassroots level being the most vulnerable.
“Boycotting a country’s tourism industry is a dangerous mechanism to bandy about without giving adequate thought to,” says Chris Roche, chief marketing officer of Wilderness Safaris, one of Africa’s most foremost ecotourism operators.
“Any tourism boycott of Zimbabwe (and others have been attempted against Namibia and Botswana in recent years for various ill-considered reasons) would have serious negative consequences for conservation and community. “In a modern world of social media and digital activism via petition websites it is far too easy for the uninformed public to call for boycotts and to get support. You have to really consider the sense of these and question whether there is any real understanding of the real grassroots impacts of these measures … impacts that are often in direct opposition to the stated aims of the protest.”
That’s what happened in fist decade of 2000, when the amount of tourists visiting Zimbabwe more than halved due to political instability. “It led to one of the saddest days of my life,” Ross Kennedy, CEO of Africa Albida Tourism (who owns the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge) recalls.
“On one day I retrenched 125 people. Luckily, with tourism picking up in the last few years I could fill those posts again, some with the original staff we retrenched.”
Dave Glynn, chairman of Africa Albida Tourism, concedes that they can’t change people’s moral opinion of Zimbabwe. “We however hope that people will be able to see the positive impact their money has on people that work in the tourism industry. The money which they spend has a huge positive impact on people’s life.
Victoria Falls Safari Lodge alone employs more than 300 people. In Zimbabwe, it’s estimated that every employee in the tourism industry has about six dependants they look after. Without tourism as a job creator it will have a massive impact on thousands of people’s lives.
Roche admits that it was a challenge doing business in Zimbabwe in the last decade, due to the political and economical instability.
“We continued to operate our camps – albeit at far lower rates and occupancies. We did this despite suffering significant financial losses because we wanted to limit the impact of the tourism downturn on both conservation and communities. If you take tourism as an employer and contributor (through taxes, entry fees, philanthropy and other impacts) away, you can have catastrophic impacts on local communities and as a result, conservation.
“In remote rural areas of Africa ecotourism and conservation are often the only form of gainful employment. The ramifications of removing these are obvious and far reaching.”
In Hwange National Park, Wilderness Safaris runs a feeding scheme for more than 1200 children. When the tourists disappear with their Euros, Dollars and Pounds, this can also disappear.
If you’re not too concerned about the communities, there is also the impact on wildlife and the environment. Victoria Falls Safari Lodge is the main contributor towards the Victoria Falls anti-poaching unit. They also run a “vulture restaurant” on the lodge’s premises, which allows researchers to collect valuable information on the region’s vulture population.
Wilderness Safaris has installed three boreholes in Hwange National Park. When the park was struck by drought a few years ago, many animals’s lives were saved by these boreholes, which are directly funded by tourism.
Jonathan Hudson, managing director of Victoria Falls Safari Lodge has seen Zimbabwe in its darkest days but is optimistic about the future of tourism looking more bright than ever.
“I probably could have taken my family and left the country, but I chose to stay. It was a challenge for me to see if I could defeat the ‘bad and the ugly’ and make something positive out of it.
“I remain an eternal optimist. Zimbabwe’s people are some of the friendliest and proudest people you will meet in your life. It was sad to see how they were affected by the absence of tourism.”
Kennedy echoes Hudson’s sentiments. “Zimbabwe remains my home. My whole life and the sum of my life’s efforts remain in this country. Most countries experience challenging times. That doesn’t mean we should abandon it during hard times. If we continue to do this, there will be nowhere left to live.”
Words: Carla Lewis-Balden