VICTORIA FALLS (The Southern African Times) – Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls are in full flow this year. The mist from the water hitting the river more than 100 yards below is visible for miles. But the crowds are missing.
“COVID has taken a big hit here; we are basically on life support,” said Gail van Jaarsvelt, who owns retail businesses in the area.
More than 300,000 foreign tourists visited the Zimbabwean site in 2019. A mere 34,000 visited in 2020, threatening the survival of Victoria Falls, a town almost entirely dependent on tourist revenue.
To highlight the importance of tourism, the government offered free COVID-19 vaccination to every adult resident of Victoria Falls in March. Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa made a point of getting vaccinated here, an event that was broadcast live on national TV.
By August, the ministry of health’s Dr. Munekayi Padingani said 72% of the town’s adults were fully vaccinated. As a result, he said, Victoria Falls was spared the deadly delta variant-driven third wave that other parts of the country are experiencing.
“We can say that our vaccination campaign was successful. The number of cases have gone down, and most of our cases are people who are not vaccinated,” he said.
Some airlines that had stopped flying into Victoria Falls earlier in the pandemic have resumed their flights. Farai Chimba, a hotel manager in the town, is also the vice chairperson of the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe. He said this should boost arrivals.
“We anticipate that as these flights continue to come in and increase the frequency, we’ll also see a corresponding increase in the number of passengers traveling into the destination,” Chimba said.
But foreign tourists have to deal with travel restrictions in their own countries. So there’s a new focus on domestic tourism to keep Victoria Falls afloat in the short term. Still, van Jaarsveldt said, business owners need to do more to encourage more locals to visit.
“We dropped the ball with that long back,” she said. “We didn’t rate the local market, we wanted the more well-heeled travelers.”
The pandemic has indeed forced Zimbabwe’s tourism sector to take domestic tourism seriously. Chimba said some hotels are offering locals discount packages of as much as 70%. The government has targeted multi-media advertising campaigns and scrapped a consumption tax on tourism products and services for locals at tourist destinations.