Clouds of white mist swirl into the sky and return to earth as a fine spray as locals walk past the closed Zimbabwean entrance to the Victoria Falls, usually one of Africa’s most popular tourist attractions.
After a season of drought, the Zambezi-fed waterfalls on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border have received record flows since April – over 50 percent higher than usual – but there are few visitors to witness the unceasing roar of one of Africa’s most astonishing spectacles.
On the Zambian side, access to the Falls has re-opened to local visitors after nearly two months of closure, but visitors will have to wear masks and proceed in small groups.
Measures to improve access on the Zimbabwean side await government approval.
The coronavirus pandemic has decimated tourism across Southern Africa, dealing a devastating blow to hotels, private lodges and tour guides reliant on luxury vacations and raising questions about whether and how the industry can be quickly and safely reopened.
Emmanuel Fundira, president of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe (SOAZ), says that nearly 90 percent of bookings have been cancelled. With the continent facing a deep recession, the future success of the industry depends on curtailing the global spread of the coronavirus.
Tourism in Zimbabwe generates an estimated US$1,4 billion annually towards the country’s US$6,1 billion GDP.
Mangaliso Ndlovu, Minister of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry, projects the sector could lose up to US$1,1 billion if global travel restrictions persist up to year-end.
Pre-COVID projections of US$1,4 billion in revenues and over 1,6 million visitors in 2020 have been shelved.
A report released by the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC), a business lobby, projects a 25 percent job loss in the tourism industry which employs a large proportion of casual and seasonal labour.
South Africa’s Tourism Business Council predicts about 600,000 direct tourism jobs could be lost to the lockdown. Before the pandemic, South Africa’s tourism industry supported an estimated 1,5 million jobs.
With domestic tourism likely to restart towards year-end and large scale international tourism unlikely to resume until 2021, the South African government has offered a grant capped at roughly US$3,000 for small and medium enterprises as part of the Tourism Relief Fund, which can be used to subsidise operational expenses, supplies and other fixed costs.
However, in Zimbabwe, whose weak economy was already stricken by inflation, government support is less extensive.
The cash-strapped administration has offered a US$1,38 million Bank Guarantee Facility to help the tourism sector recover, a package which includes loans for working capital from banks, and it has other financial incentives in place that predate COVID-19.
Ignatius Matungamire, chairman of the Association of Zimbabwe Travel Agents, urges the government to provide a direct grant for their members.
“The travel sector is at a standstill right now and it hasn’t been operating well before COVID-19 because airlines withdrew from the market and the travel agencies are not operating at all. Besides what the government is offering we would have been in a better position if part of this money came in the form of a grant like what has happened in the South African market,” he says.
Fundira says SOAZ members have received a forex liquidation exemption which protects foreign currency funds in a business account from being seized by Zimbabwe’s central bank if the funds go unused for 90 days.
Zimbabwe has extremely low foreign currency reserves and the coronavirus lockdown has severely reduced forex inflows to the banking system due to the reduced export of key minerals, such as gold and platinum, and cash crops such as tobacco and flowers.
SOAZ has also applied for tax relief, lease extensions and a suspension of levies for affected businesses, but the government does not have the resources for a sector bailout.
As governments grapple to offer financial support, the regional spillover effects of the crisis are mounting.
Lance Nesbitt, chairman of the Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides Association, says that the unprecedented loss of income by the general populace could spur poaching, endangering the industry’s most precious commodity – its wildlife.
“Basically everything has come to a standstill in terms of tourist arrivals and what this has led to is the inability of safari operators to fund their anti-poaching units and their day to day patrols.
“… not only are we not able to operate, but 85 percent of most of these populations are not employed in the formal sector or are unemployed and they survive on a day to day basis and their source of revenue has also been taken away.
“This leads to hungry people, this leads to an increase in poaching and this has a drastic impact on our wildlife,” he said.
He urged funders of wildlife conservation to extend their support to safari tour operators to enable them to mobilise against crime networks.
In Botswana, rhino poachers have reportedly gained ground in the absence of safari tourists, with 25 rhinos poached in the world renowned Okavango Delta over the past six months, a stark contrast to the past two years in which 18 rhino were killed.
Given the uptick in poaching and dramatic loss of revenues, Botswana is keen to gradually reopen its industry and has put in place a number of measures to ensure visitor and staff safety.
The tourism industry contributes over US$608 million to Botswana’s revenues, and the salaries of staff working in re-opened lodges have been subsidised by the government’s US$200 million COVID-19 Pandemic Relief Fund.
Under a raft of strict guidelines, tour vehicles, boats and charter planes will limit passenger numbers.
Reopened lodges are required to test the temperatures of all local guests and employees twice a day, while a daily register of all visitors to a premises must be submitted to the National Emergency Operation Centre.
Communal spaces where social distancing cannot be observed such as gyms, spas or swimming pools are to remain closed. Such restrictions could offer a model for the gradual reopening of the industry across the region.
Local businesses are being forced to offer discounts to woo back reluctant visitors. In a bid to recover from this year’s financial setback, Tabona Wina, the co-owner of Brave Africa, a private safari tour company based in Botswana and the US, is offering heavily discounted bookings as a “once in a lifetime pricing for any dream safari,” in 2021.
But as Botswana’s cautious return to hospitality indicates, it will not be “business as usual” for as long as the pandemic lasts. – African Business