Dumisani Nsingo and Leonard Ncube, Sunday News Reporters
ZIMBABWE’s premier tourist facility, the mighty Victoria Falls, which is also the world’s largest waterfall will reopen this week almost 100 days after the country initiated a lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19.
The major development, is set to start unlocking the tourism sector and Victoria Falls town in particular which has been among the most affected since the lockdown started on 30 March.
On Tuesday, the country will clock 100 days since it embarked on the lockdown meant to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister Cde Mangaliso Ndlovu told Sunday News that the national park which houses the Mighty Victoria Falls, David Livingstone Statue and Rainforest has now been given the nod to open to domestic tourists after Government last week passed a Statutory Instrument (SI) and partially opened the tourism industry by allowing restaurants to serve customers for sit-in meals during licensed hours.
“National parks including the one in Victoria Falls which also houses Mighty Falls have been allowed to open but unfortunately still there is no inter-city travel so we are opening to locals for now,” said Minister Ndlovu.
The Statutory Instrument also gave ZimParks the nod to open national parks and other amenities, as well as safari operators to open only for local clients.
A news crew visited the National Park yesterday and observed that there were still no visitors as ZimParks indicated it was still putting final touches to ensure health regulations are observed when people flock to the area.
ZimParks spokesperson Mr Tinashe Farawo said his organisation was making frantic efforts to meet health requirements paving way for reopening.
“According to the SI, there are certain requirements that need to be met. We need to put mechanisms in place to make sure people are safe because we don’t want to open and become a hotspot for Covid-19,” he said.
Tourism operators in the resort town have welcomed the reopening of the Rainforest as a positive development that will go a long way in saving jobs and revitalising the industry, which had almost ground to a halt because of the Covid-19 induced lockdown.
Ms Shelley Cox, who is co-ordinator of the “We Are Victoria Falls” initiative which was established under the Zimbabwe Destination Development Programme by the Ministry of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality, said the reopening of the Rainforest was the first step towards opening of the industry.
“The reopening of our National Parks and Rainforest for intra-district travel is a hugely positive and hopeful step forward and it is hoped this will lead towards reopening of inter-provincial travel and eventually regional and international tourism reopening and recovery. Ultimately these progressive steps forward will assist the tourism sector to save livelihoods of the many who are employed within the tourism sector and will allow locals to once again be able to travel and experience the diverse array of natural heritage and landscapes which we as a population are blessed to have within our borders,” said Ms Cox.
Her sentiments were echoed by Elephants Walk operator, Mrs Gail Van Jaarsveldt who said Covid-19 had caused distress to the industry, where a majority of workers lost jobs while those who remained had salaries cut by up to three quarters in some cases.
“We welcome the opening of our national parks and Victoria Falls Rainforest as the first step towards resumption of our tourism recovery.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused devastation to our Victoria Falls community and this cautious reopening has given us a glimmer of hope. We look forward to welcoming domestic tourists back and share with us the majestic beauty of the Falls, the abundant wildlife and the Mighty Zambezi,” she said.
Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe Victoria Falls chapter chair Mr Anald Musonza said the partial opening of the sector will save jobs.
“For the industry, this is what we have been lobbying Government to do, to allow us to open for the domestic market and test our new protocols so that we can operate safely for our staff and tourists.
“We hope this partial opening of the industry will also help save jobs as the industry has been bleeding due to the lockdown,” said Mr Musonza.
The Government, a fortnight ago allowed tourism operators and hoteliers to enter the Rainforest to take footage for marketing purposes.
While the water level has reportedly gone down compared to what it was in March and April, the thundering sound of the Falls can still be heard as far as Mkhosana suburb, about three kilometres away, with the light showers from where the Mosi-oa-Tunya name originates seen a distance away.
Meanwhile, Minister Ndlovu said the Government was committed to removing duty on all tourism and hospitality activities over a stipulated period as part of measures to expedite the recovery of the sector.
“Treasury said they will be removing duty for all local tourism activities from stay (accommodation) to any activity that one might be partaking in . . . that’s something that we are finalising. We want to ensure that it’s cheap to visit (tourist attractions) and cheaper to stay in hotels.
“We have also called on hotels to reduce their charging rates because they are a bit on the astronomical side.”
He also mentioned that Government was also making an effort to offset its long-standing debt with a number of tourism and hospitality players.
“They (tourism and hospitality players) also raised the issue that Government is owing them a lot of money for the services they would have rendered.
“So, we (ministry) made a specific request to the Treasury, to pay such players, as it will help them find their feet because if they take a long period without getting their dues it tends to lose value in the process.”
He said the country’s hospitality and tourism players were still to access the $500 million stimulus package set aside by the Government to assist in reviving the industry.
He said he was optimistic that the country would be one of the most attractive tourism destinations in the world post Covid-19 taking into consideration measures that have been taken by the Government to contain the pandemic.
“Most countries as they are opening, they are coming up with their own list of countries where one can travel to, but by and large, they will be looking at how that specific country has been performing under Ccovid-19 and we are one of the best performing (countries in the world).
“I must say, I think the measures the President put were really top-notch and we have managed to contain the virus so far,” said Minister Ndlovu.