THE buzzling sounds of helicopters flying over the majestic Victoria Falls and the drums from the popular Boma Restaurant are now like a fairy tale as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to dictate the pace of events in Zimbabwe’s prime tourist destination and beyond.
The usually bustling Victoria Falls town is now a shadow of itself, despite the gradual relaxing of lockdown measures countrywide.
Hotels and activity desks are still gathering dust as the haemorrhaging in the tourism industry continues.
Many have lost their jobs, but former employees are still stuck in the resort town, with a fainting hope that tourism companies may open soon. Some have remained in the town because of hope of future employment while others were left without any financial means to relocate to their rural homes due to the small packages that they received from their once vibrant employers. Shame and despair has turned a lot of operator’s senior managers into vegetable gardeners while others are now resorting to illegal intercity transportation.
This is the story of a town that was gutted by an abrupt Covid-19 induced closure of business which left the town’s entire population vulnerable and exposed.
Last week, President Emmerson Mnangagwa officially re-opened the world heritage site — The Rain Forest — after it had been closed to the members of the public for exactly one hundred days.
The opening, which coincided with the launch of the National Tourism Recovery and Growth Plan, was done right inside the rain forest amid pomp and fan fair.
However, hope still remains in the penumbra of the imagination of operators as intercity travel has remained closed while the use of public service vehicles remains restricted.
Tourism players in resort town and beyond are clear that the stimulae to the tourism industry is the domestic market. The market however can only open and thrive when intercity travel is opened and the operating hours are extended.
Most of the activities in the resort commence towards sunset and end late in the day. Sunset cruise and game drives do not suit the current curfew hours as they are ordinarily concluded towards mid-night. Most tourists who go to Victoria Falls do not do so simply to stay in hotels but rather to enjoy the array of activities that the town boasts of.
As each month passes by, company executives are also watching their bills and slowly taking down the size of their invaluable employees on retrenchment.
Hospitality group Africa Albida Tourism’s resort general manager Anald Musonza cautioned that some companies may permanently close if no bail out is urgently availed to the industry.
“Cash flows have run dry and most of the businesses are facing permanent closure and serious interventions are now needed to avert this catastrophe across the whole Tourism and Hospitality industry and consequently, all support industries that rely on our industry for business will also collapse,” he said.
His remarks come after the government disclosed that there is a loan guarantee scheme of ZW$500 000 for the industry.
However, the revival fund seems to be stuck in bureaucracy as most companies in the resort town are yet to access the fund. Banks are still hesitant to give the operators the funds where prospects of returning the money are unpredictable.
Musonza further stated that the entire industry has been waiting eagerly for the opening of the rain forest and intercity travel. The opening of the two will in turn lead to the opening of the airports and business may resume. He applauded operators for being Covid-19 rules compliant but also said that the domestic market will be used as test case for the efficacy of the new normal.
“All operators have had time to set up Covid-19 complied protocols and train staff during this lockdown. The only way we can tell that we are ready is to test our systems with real guests. We can’t wait to host tourists again in our resort town,” he said.
The vice-president of the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe (HAZ) Farai Chimba weighed in on the vulnerability of the industry by stating that the industry is on life support and that the limited operating hours have adversely affected the sector.
“Industry is on life support. Occupancy for the year is expected to average 8%. All hospitality sectors have been adversely affected by lockdowns as well as by the curfew and those operating, the challenge has been that of opening for a restricted number of hours. The closure of intercity movement has taken away the blood life of the industry,” Chimba said.
“Access to government financing has been slow to be operational especially the announced half a billion-dollar facility. Banks have not started giving this yet. Government is giving a guarantee so it is up to the issuing banks to have the funds available and with industry having had virtually no business, it poses a challenge on the ability to pay back without assured business.
“The loose chain that is connecting the banks and the government is likely to lead to the wilting of businesses. The tourism industry has already retrenched more than 60% of its workforce. If the money remains inaccessible, the permanent injury to the business will cause irreparable damages to the pristine service that the destination is known for. Not only formal tourism companies are feeling the heat from the coronavirus induced closures but informal businesses and workers in the industry are carrying a york which is beyond their strength.”
The managing director of Tess barber shop, Tavengwa Makore said that his business had declined by more than 70% as most of his clients who used to seek his services no longer do so.
“Most of my clients used to benefit from commissions and tips when the industry was operating, but now it’s just a dream and living on hope that one day the Lord will redeem the much needed and cherished industry and avail a vaccine to the researchers and we find life going back to normal”, he said.
The long beards and afro hair is now the new normal for the people of Victoria Falls.
When the industry eventually opens, one wonders whether the employers and employees will be able to identify one another.
As industry players remain hopeful that inter-city travel will be allowed soon, they are fully aware that they will only be able to service debts and go back to the heydays when the international borders are open.