In Pursuit of Resilience: A View of Victoria Falls Tourism Sector Post-COVID-19

Something for everyone

Victoria Falls is a picturesque town with an unassuming underbelly that will blow any tourist away. It aptly has been dubbed the Adrenaline Capital of the World because of the tremendous number of activities in and around the town. For those who bother counting, it is worth noting these activities number well over 50.

Perhaps best-known is whitewater rafting on the Zambezi River, through world-class rapids that torpedo would-be adventurers out of rafts only to be brought back in primarily by Tonga or Nambya lads. They come from the rural Jambezi, Jengwe, Chisuma and Binga areas, where they grow up playing in the mighty Zambezi along with the great-great-grandchildren of early white settlers.

Canoeing looks easy until you paddle too close to a hippopotamus nestled in the river’s reeds. Not to worry, highly-skilled guides will make sure you are not in harm’s way. If you fancy jumping off bridges, then the bridge swing, Batonka Gorge swing or famous bungee jump will make sure that appetite is fully satisfied.

If you are the quiet sort, sunset cruises on the Zambezi in boats of all sizes will make you want to relocate to Africa or flee city life. Delicacies are found at our impeccable hotels and lodges, with a variety from the best storehouses in Zimbabwe. The famous Flight of Angels provides glimpses of Chamabondo National Park and Zambezi National Park, where wild animals roam free.

At the top of the tourist list is the amazing curtain of water that is Victoria Falls — or Mosi-oa-Tunya, The Smoke That Thunders, in the local Kololo language. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the three largest waterfalls in the world, one cannot help but stare in awe.

Then, shop the famous markets with all manner of crafts sold by people from nearby villages and the dusty townships of Chinotimba and Mkhosana. There, craftsman and artist make their daily sales and return to their homes with essential groceries.

Victoria Falls is a bustling town churning out the elusive green bank that helps oil an economy teetering on the brink of collapse from corruption, sanctions and drought.

This was pre-pandemic Victoria Falls. Guides would shepherd happy clients on activities wearing that priceless Zimbabwean smile common among those of us smartly clad in khaki. Some guides have been known to pay for houses with tourists’ tips. Kazungula Border would be busy with visitors to and from Botswana. Transfer vehicles would make the rounds at various hotels and lodges. Overland trucks would come in from Cape Town, Kasane and Livingstone carrying tired backpackers, who, after washing off the day, would emerge and party into the night. Local taxis would ferry essential tourism workers: porters, waiters, chefs and barmen. Some night spots might not be pleasing to the eye, but they have tourist coming back for more.

Who knew it would come to an end.

Grinding to a halt

First hit were companies and individuals focusing on the “look east policy.” Asian traveler numbers dwindled, and then traffic from those countries dried up. Coronavirus came like a tornado. Rumours of job losses started circling the town and locals’ faces started looking worried. Then the virus spread to Europe, and the disaster sank in as clients from Italy, France, Spain and Britain started canceling trips. Quickly, it hit all major countries and all major markets. Travel bans and containment efforts closed everyone in their countries. Borders closed, and so did tourism’s steady income. Whole sectors have ground to a halt.

As lockdowns are lifted and restrictions revised, tourism will not recover quickly. By its nature, tourism relies on travelers’ trust. Trust takes time to build. Coronavirus is highly infectious and must be fought by keeping people apart and at home, not traveling. Countries will eventually lift lockdowns, but they will not be quick to open borders for fear of reinfection by visitors.

How will Victoria Falls’ tourism industry survive after COVID-19? How will the sprawling workforce and their families not only survive lockdown and an extended period of no business, but thrive afterward?

Resilience. Constant and consistent. That’s how.

Realign to reopen

The pause this virus brought on our lucrative and critical industry is a necessary and useful one. Now, tourism actors can realign their product mix and value chain to not only withstand this seismic shock but others that might follow. Tourism in Zimbabwe has serious inequalities, with too few in control and benefits not trickling down, and Victoria Falls is no exception. The worldwide pandemic has exposed the glaring inequalities in income and national and individual resources. Too few are running the show and making decisions for too many. The pie is unevenly distributed. The industry has not afforded an opportunity for smaller players to take root. Tourism stakeholders have not been innovative enough or willing to incorporate new thinking.

We have a great variety of lovely products, but a tourist who came 20 years ago will experience the same product now without any added value. Its important to incorporate innovation in product delivery, payment systems and after-sales service. After all, a key element of the service mix is process. Processes and systems must be better tuned and more aligned to the digital world post COVID-19.

Tourism players have not invested in human capital development. Is not the onus on government to ensure tertiary education and vocational training for employees who must service the tourism industry? Tourism industry players must invest in the education of their own and value their employees by offering well-paying salaries and long term contracts. That will add value to the product chain. Employees must take a serious look at increasing their knowledge and investing in education, too.

Tourism players must invest in new technology and new products. In the post-COVID-19 world, big companies must find space for small companies, and small companies and individuals must be ready and willing to fill the space. Every one will basically be starting on the same footing. This is an opportunity for new start-ups.

Our products must cause less damage to the environment, be more encompassing of indigenous communities, be less dismissive of workforce grievances, and less reliant on marketing. We must aim to deliver a holistic product able to draw repeat clients who enjoy our unique offerings. We must forge better partnerships between private business and government. The disparity between the poor and rich must shrink substantially.

Resilience and rebound

This pandemic is the do-not-put-all-your-eggs-in-one-basket lesson. The tourism system suffered a great and immediate shock because resilience was never an important concept. The jobs fell too quickly, the money and resources dried up too quickly, and hunger set in too quickly.

In as much as it is a government’s duty to create protective social systems, it is the duty of those who employ people in the private sector — the tourism sector — to create protective systems for loyal workers. Dollars must be invested in employee welfare. The dramatic job losses we witnessed all too quickly cannot be repeated.

Tourism revenues must be used to build the infrastructure of tourism towns — health delivery, education, water and electricity — before revenues reach national purses.

Zimbabwe’s geography means most tourist attractions are in towns and small cities. Have they benefited from their resources so that they can cope with the seismic impacts of a pandemic? An important reason travelers chose specific destinations is stability, the perception that these attractions are able to cope with uncertainty. In the post-pandemic world, this perception will be an even more important factor in travelers’ decisions. Tourism players must be sure their towns and attractions are equipped with world class hospitals, emergency services and communication capabilities.

Resilience, or at least the pursuit of resilience, will need a concerted willingness and effort across the board. Failure will mean this town will be a ghost of its former self.

Source: Sfe Sebata*

*Sfe Sebata, Mentor, Rise N’ Shine, Lupinyu, outside Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

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