Fresh tremors shake feeble tourism sector

TAURAI MANGUDHLA

FRESH jitters swept through the tourism industry this week as cracks emerged after two airlines suspended flights while a regional luxury coach faced liquidation following a sharp slide in passenger numbers.

This week’s developments underlined the depth of the crisis that confronts hotels, airlines and other tour operators under a global economy that has been grounded by the surge in Covid-19 infections and deaths.

The move by Emirates and RwandAir to suspend flights compounded an already difficult period for Zimbabwe’s US$2 billion industry.

Authorities and sector executives quickly reacted, telling businessdigest that some hotels were virtually empty as lockdowns affected intercity travel and international arrivals.

While Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) acting chief executive officer Givemore Chidzidzi downplayed the airlines exodus saying it was a global phenomenon, he confirmed the headwinds hurtling through the fragile industry.

“It is a bloodbath,” the ZTA boss told businessdigest, noting that some players may not return in the aftermath of the pandemic. “Local hotels are struggling and doing what they can do to survive.

“It’s now survival (of the fittest) for all operators and there is a big possibility that some may fail to revive … some players will sink, new operators will also come and some will survive. When you get zero occupancies it doesn’t mean electricity, other utilities as well as insurance and wages will not be paid.”

He said there were engagements underway for a bailout package.

But last year, the government promised to allocate the industry Z$500 million (about US$6 million), which was part of a bigger Covid-19 relief package for productive sectors announced by President Emmerson Mnangagwa in May.

Players say they received nothing, and they are still under siege.

The tourism boss said Zimbabwe should not worry much about the suspension of flights.

“The suspensions are because of Covid-19,” he said.

“There is no other reason. We all hope when the situation improves (the airlines will return). The airlines have been talking about Covid-19. This has not happened to Zimbabwe alone, they have suspended flights into other countries.”

RwandAir suspended flights into four southern African cities including Harare, citing a deteriorating health crisis, while Emirates will be briefly pulling out of the Harare leg of it’s Dubai-Harare-Lusaka route.

This makes Zimbabwe the hardest economy hit under the latest developments in aviation.

“In view of the global concerns on Covid-19 variants prevalent throughout southern Africa, RwandAir announces the suspension of its flights to Johannesburg, Cape Town, Lusaka and Harare, effective February 8, 2021,” the airline said on Monday.

This followed the decision by South African luxury passenger coach, Greyhound to liquidate on February 14, a day Emirates stops flights.
Greyhound said the closure of borders had affected its business.

Innocent Manyera, the immediate past president of the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe said the pandemic had paralysed the sector.

“What it (the suspension of flights) means is Covid-19 is all over and we need to take it seriously,” he said. “The challenge for organisations is that they continue having overheads like salaries, license and other things which they cannot avoid. Whether you are an operator or an airline, you have to pay for licenses and salaries when you are not operating. Our labour laws require us to pay in full as long as we are still operating. Remember we had seven months last year of disturbances so we are strained and we actually need funds when the industry opens.

“Even if you open, who are you going to host? You cannot take Mana Pools and Chinhoyi Caves to where people are. You cannot do a door-to-door of Kariba or Mana Pools, so that’s the challenge for our industry.”

Last week, researchers at IH Securities painted a gloomy picture of prospects for a speedy recovery for Zimbabwe’s hotels, saying room occupancies will be under pressure from Covid-19-induced lockdowns and a freeze in global travel during early 2021, as governments fight to end the health crisis.

IH said occupancies could plummet by 90% during the first few months of 2021.

This will complicate the situation for an industry that lost US$1 billion in potential earnings during the first 10 months of last year.