HEAVY storms tore through the extraordinary scenery underneath our Boeing 767 as we descended onto Victoria Falls International Airport on December 15, 2010.
Under a torrent of hail and strong winds, the runway was invisible, the aviation business grounded to a standstill and high above the angry cumulonimbus, we were forced to delay touchdown.
Our pilot toiled with a string of options, he told us — to circle on and on until the cumulonimbus cooled off their temper and gave us passage, or tear through the humid skies in southwestern Zimbabwe on an unplanned return flight to Harare.
We were lucky.
After 20 minutes of flying over the Zambezi Valley, the jetliner was given the thumbs-up to roll over the rain-soaked tarmac.
It is usually a breathtaking experience — you don’t know what’s in store until your wheels screech safely to a halt.
Many times, it is the point when passengers give a standing ovation to the experts in the cockpit for a job well done.
But for business journalists like me, landing at Victoria Falls has become a routine, an exhilarating experience that gives one the opportunity to get spoilt by the terrific scenery that camouflages the jungle airport, and the stunning national parks around it.
Victoria Falls International Airport is the only outstanding man-made landmark at the centre of boundless jungles and rolling swampland.
Exploration of Victoria Falls’ mystic attractions starts when the airport comes into sight from the air, as pilots persuade their planes to drift earthwards.
On rare flights, the drama is added by a subdued turbulence that confronts tourists as airplanes submit to the call of gravity, while they cast their eyes over the Victoria Falls, Livingstone town in Zambia and the Zambezi’s meandering rift valleys.
At that point, the river pronounces its authority as it flows effortlessly between dry valleys.
On December 15, 2010, I was landing in Victoria Falls to discuss how Zimbabwe’s five million strong diaspora population can power the growth of the tourism industry.
For now the sector only contributes US$2 billion annually to the economy.
But experts are convinced that with proper planning, this figure can easily reach US$5 billion.
My hosts were Zimbabwean professionals who had flown from several European metropoles under the banner of the Zimbabwe Diaspora Foundation, hoping to add their voice to this important topic.
This was the first real attempt by Zimbabweans to draft in the diaspora in efforts to drive the tourism industry back to boomWill the diaspora steer tourism from brink of bankruptcy?
Typical of all good and progressive ideas, the initiative fizzled out as soon as it was launched.
Today, no report on the industry mentions this potentially important cog in the development of tourism.
This could be why millions of these professionals fly the world over for holidays, spending fortunes to prop those economies.
But Finance minister Mthuli Ncube’s pre-budget strategy released last week jolted me into reminiscing.
Mthuli is spot-on about the tourism strategy.
“The Covid-19 pandemic messaging has been hinged on the ‘stay at home’ campaigns and the encouragement of social distancing as well as placement of travel restrictions,” his paper said.
“This has significantly affected travel, including for the purposes of Visiting Friends and Relatives (VFR). This also restricted the diaspora from visiting their loved ones especially over the Easter Holidays. As nations and people heal from Covid-19, the markets recover and travel and tourism business bounce back, the need to tap into the diaspora market will be critical. Post Covid-19, the diaspora tourism promotion will be targeted at markets such as SA, the USA, Australia and the UK,” the paper noted.
The good thing is, if this plan gets rolled out, it will be complemented by a cluster of ongoing initiatives to rebuild tourism.
Under a strategy that came into force in 2019, Zimbabwe has been combing through large swaths of previously unexplored wildlife-rich jungles to unlock fresh investment opportunities and attractions.
The country’s remote outback locations still have undiscovered treasures that could boost the geographical spread of attractions and drive revenues for the industry.
Zimbabwe wants to review the present spread of tourism investment and infrastructure, then add new ground in high potential destinations away from the traditional resort centres.
We have had so many backers.
China’s Touchroad International Holdings Group (TIHG) re-affirmed in 2019 to follow through its promise of investments deals worth $1,2 billion agreed on in April 2018.
It is easy to see that this strategy contains solutions to many problems that have kept the diaspora market away.
Diversifying the domestic product lies at the heart of everything that has gone wrong in Zimbabwe’s efforts to tap into this important market.
These people have visited the Victoria Falls, with its never changing activities for long. Many years later, there are no surprises for returning Zimbabweans.
It is the same old story, and they then choose between seeing the same attraction for a lifetime, or spreading their scope to other destinations.
They have ended up in other destinations.
If they choose to return home, they go to the village or stay in towns.
Competing destinations have revamped and improved their hotels and other infrastructure. During the same time, large-scale projects are at a standstill in Zimbabwe because of the economic and political crisis.
The important thing is that once you hook the diaspora into our destinations, we literally kill two birds with one stone.
They become the biggest ambassadors who preach good messages about our destinations, and they come to spend in tourism destinations.
This market waits for a day when five million people become marketing officers for their country. The results will be immense, and the benefits immeasurable.
This won’t happen until authorities’ review their hostilities against dissenting voices, stop attacking them with bullets and teargas to shut them up and fail to re-engage the international community.
Shooting at defenceless people is mediaeval.
It turns our diaspora population into machines that preach to destroy.
They are listened to, because the markets presume that what they say is always correct.
The recent campaign by members of the G40 to declare Zimbabwe a crisis flashpoint only demonstrated this point.
It will be easier for the diaspora market to troop back into Zimbabwe if direct air connectivity is re-established.
Intercontinental travel is painful if you have to hop from one airport to another.
Until some or all of these hurdles are addressed, we cannot safely say the tourism industry is well placed to steer hotels, airlines and other facilities out of the threat of bankruptcy posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Makoshori is the AMH group business editor.