THE recently commissioned Victoria Falls International Airport, which is capable of handling wide-bodied aircraft, is beginning to hold sway in the resort town, with indications human traffic will exponentially increase as new airlines begin plying the route.
There are indications tourism industry operators in neighbouring Zambia, which also commissioned new radar equipment and a new terminal at the Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula (former Livingstone Airport) on December 23 last year, fear their businesses will suffer as a result.
While the Zambian airport, which claims to be closest to the Victoria Falls, has to capacity to process 700 000 passengers per year, the Victoria Falls airport now has potential to handle 900 000 more at 1,6 million passengers.
The US$150 million facelift of the Victoria Falls airport, funded by China Eximbank, which entailed construction of a new four-kilometre runway, made it possible to land wide-bodied, long-haul aircraft such as the Boeing 747 and Airbus A330.
Private sector player African Sun Limited (ASL) gave the clearest indication yet of how the new airport could be a boon for the hospital sector.
ASL chairman Mr Herbert Nkala claimed in the group’s year-end financials to December 31, 2016 weekly airline seat arrivals — measuring the number of passenger carried by airlines — are forecast to rise 40 percent.
“We are further encouraged by the optimism of the tourism industry arising from the completion of the Victoria Falls Airport expansion and refurbishment, which will lead to increased foreign arrivals and improve our occupancy at our Victoria Falls properties.
“A number of airlines have expressed interest in the route, and those that have confirmed that they will fly into Victoria Falls will increase the weekly airline seat arrival by 40 percent,” said Mr Nkala in a statement accompanying the results.
Government says RwandAir will be introducing direct flights from Kigali, Rwanda sometime this month.
Rwanda is considered one of the fastest growing economies in sub-Saharan Africa.
Kenyan Airways will be launching direct flights from Nairobi to Victoria Falls beginning May 18.
Also SA Airlink, which was the first newly introduced airline to land at the new airport in March, is expected to introduce daily flights from Cape Town to Victoria Falls from July.
Ethiopian Airlines made its first direct flight from Addis Ababa to Victoria Falls on Sunday last week.
Overall, there are expectations the new airport will tip the scale in favour of local tourism.
Encouragingly, recent statistics from the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (Caaz) show that passenger arrivals in the resort rose to 20 305 and 17 017 in January and February this year from 17 256 and 16 188 respectively a year earlier.
In fact, in January alone, an additional 3 000 passengers have been processed through the airport than in 2016.
A United States luxury and lifestyle travel magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, has since named Zimbabwe the best destination for travellers to Africa in 2017.
The US is one of the country’s biggest traditional source markets.
Local hospitality industry players are naturally bullish the new development in the resort will drive margins and profits.
Chairperson of the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe (HAZ) Victoria Falls chapter Mr Christopher Svovah said there is a direct 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,” said Mr Svovah, who is also the Rainbow Hotel (Victoria Falls) general manager.
Notwithstanding the positive developments, the Zimbabwe Council for Tourism (ZCT) says the country needs to take ownership of the new product and package it for the international market.
“For the airlines to be coming in, it is a major endorsement for the destination, especially Victoria Falls, which is a seventh wonder of the world. This means we have more capacity, easy access and what is left for us is to aggressively package the destination.
“We don’t want to have a beautiful product and fail to market it. We must take ownership of the packaging and not let our cousins across the Limpopo take all the limelight,” said Dr Taka Munyanyiwa, a consultant with ZCT.
The Victoria Falls is now connected to major regional capitals such as Lusaka, Luanda, Windhoek, Gaborone, Pretoria and Maputo.
But experts say for Zimbabwe to get the maximum possible benefit from arrivals there is need to review the relatively high pricing models for local tourism products.
The use of a strong US dollar as a unit of exchange compared to weaker regional currencies, most particularly the Zambian kwacha, is eating into the country’s competitiveness.
Reports suggest Zambia is presently benefitting the most as it is offering accommodation for visitors who only come to the Zimbabwean side for day visits.
HAZ said the challenge was to downwardly review prices.
“The challenge is the cost in Zimbabwe; as tourism players we don’t operate outside the rest of the economy. We need to appreciate that Zimbabwe is 30 percent more expensive than the region.
“The way out is to come up with tourism packages that are way below what is already there. For instance, if we can have a package of R10 000 covering a return ticket, accommodation for three nights and breakfast and one or two activities, it would be better,” said Mr Svovah.
It is believed the recently introduced 15 percent Value Added Tax on amounts spent by foreign tourists is making the situation even worse.
ZCT is presently engaging Government to keep the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority at bay after the latter slapped a US$5,3 million tax bill on two hotels in Victoria Falls last year. The 112-year-old Victoria Falls Hotel, owned by Emerged Railway Properties – a joint venture between the National Railways of Zimbabwe and Zambia Railways – and jointly managed by African Sun and Meikles Africa, owes the bulk of the bill at US$4,1 million.
Victoria Falls Lodge, a privately-owned lodge in Zambezi National Park, is said to owe Zimra US$1,3 million in unpaid taxes.
And ZCT believes it is such costs that should be revised, if not scrapped, to make Zimbabwe the tourist destination of choice.
“We currently have the debate with the Minister (of Finance Patrick Chinamasa) over zero-rating tourism products,” said Dr Munyanyiwa.