HARARE – The recently-commissioned $150 million Victoria Falls International Airport has spurred brisk tourism business in the resort town.
This comes after Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airways — in April — introduced direct flights to Victoria Falls from Nairobi and Addis Ababa respectively.
On the other hand, Rwandan Airlines, which introduced the Kigali-Harare direct flights during the same month and the Turkish Airlines have indicated that they might soon be flying into the newly-refurbished Victoria Falls International Airport.
The airport is poised to attract increased air traffic after it underwent a $150 million facelift which increased passenger handling capacity to 1,5 million per year, up from 500 000.
South African Airways introduced its new Airbus A330-300 aircraft on the Johannesburg-Victoria Falls route after the upgrading.
Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe (Haz) Victoria Falls chapter chairperson Christopher Svovah told the Daily News on Sunday that average hotel occupancy levels rose from 48 percent in the first quarter of 2016 to nearly 58 percent this year.
“We applaud the government for coming up with the open skies policy as this has resulted in a number of airlines such as Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and SA Airlink among others bringing more tourists into Victoria Falls,” he said.
Svovah, who is also the Victoria Falls Rainbow Hotel general manager, said there was correlation between air connectivity and socio-economic growth.
“It enhances destination accessibility and connectivity and whenever there are airlines, there is socio-economic growth. This growth will not only be in Zimbabwe, but across the region.
“We anticipate that 90 000 new seats are coming into Victoria Falls and this will increase volumes for taxi drivers, food outlets, hotels and all other hospitality institutions,” he said.
The new international terminal has capacity to service 1,5 million people per annum and a new parallel
4 000 metres runway to cater for wide body aircraft in the class of Boeing 747.
Victoria Falls is the epicentre of a 500-kilometre radius, which includes one of the greatest rivers of the world, Zambezi, and a diverse number of wilderness areas ranging from the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park in Botswana, Kafue National Park in Zambia, Hwange and Matusadona National Parks and Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe.
Svovah said the increase in tourist arrivals has seen various hospitality industry players coming up with new concepts and refurbishing existing ones to meet international standards and increased tourists’ demand.
African Sun Limited chief executive Edwin Shangwa said the listed hospitality group recently completed repainting of its Elephant Hills Resort and Conference Centre exterior in the resort area.
“The Victoria Falls Hotel second phase refurbishment is expected to start before the end of the year. And creation of additional conferencing facility at The Kingdom at Victoria Falls is expected to be completed by the third quarter of 2017,” he said.
Adventure tour operator, Wild Horizons, said it was failing to meet demand due to increased tourist’s arrivals.
“The demand for our luxury cruises is higher and most of the times we end up sub hiring other companies,” the company’s sales manager Titus Maseko said.
Wild Horizons, which specialises in outdoor adventure tours, adrenaline activities, wildlife viewing, cultural excursions and transfers, operates four luxury cruises with a total capacity of 200 passengers.
Amid the boom in occupancy, commercial sex workers are also recording brisk business from “short-time” and “pungwe” romps.
“We are getting more clients, visitors are coming and we are happy with our business,” a sex worker who only identified herself as Idah said.
Despite the boom, challenges remain.
According to Haz, Zimbabwe is 30 percent more expensive than other countries in the sub-region – a development that has seen some tourists preferring to stay in Zambia.
Some tour operators in Victoria Falls also complained about the controversial 15 percent Value Added Tax imposed on foreign tourists. Government has refused to scrap the 15 percent tax on foreign tourists’ accommodation.
Hospitality industry players also said Statutory Instrument 64 of 2016 promulgated in June last year, which bans the import of certain South African goods, including coffee creamers, camphor creams, white petroleum jellies, plastic pipes and fittings, builders’ products, baked beans, cereals, bottled water and second-hand tyres, had adversely affected the industry.
“The introduction of SI64, which we now hear was promulgated without proper consultation, is making life difficult for most hotels around here,” said a local hospitality industry player.
“There are some products which are popular with tourists such as flavoured milk and cereals that were put on the import ban list but are not yet fully available in Zimbabwe and this has put pressures on most companies’ performance.”