Uproar as Zimparks seals off Vic Falls …tourists barred to make way for private event

In recent years, Victoria Falls has come under Unesco’s spotlight over its ecological and conservation state due to commercial enterprises sprouting in the resort town.

The Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority (Zimparks) sealed off the rainforest nestled at the heart of Victoria Falls from the public on Monday this week to make way for a private event, triggering outrage from residents and tourism players in the resort town.

Destination Wedding Planners (DWP), acclaimed as the largest destination wedding planners, hosted the event in partnership with RSVP, a local event planning group as part of a three-day summit which ran from Monday to Wednesday this week.

Local residents and tour operators took exception after Zimparks advised the public that the rainforest in the Victoria Falls National Park will be “temporarily closed to the public because of a special event happening in the park on Monday 15 April 2024 from 16:00 hours onwards” and advised them to adjust their travel plans.

“I am writing as a private Zimbabwean citizen and Victoria Falls resident in regard to the Zimparks notice of closure of Victoria Falls today, from 1600 hours, to all visitors, for a 'Special Event',” renowned wildlife and environment painter Larry Benjamin Norton wrote to Zimparks area manager Marvelous Mbikiyana in a letter dated April 15.

“Obviously many tourists have tightly pre-planned itineraries, set months in advance, that are disrupted by this surprising private arrangement announced last week. To reiterate, the issue I refer to is the closure of the entire Victoria National Park for a private function.”

Norton, who is locked up in a fierce legal dispute with Zimparks over its decision to award Adage Success and Scanner Investments rights to set up commercial enterprises at the heart of the Victoria Falls, challenged the authority to explain the rationale of barring the park from the public.

The High Court is yet to hand down a judgement on the case which was filed two years ago.

Norton’s letter reads: “As custodians of our foremost national monument, and world heritage site, can Zimparks issue any public explanation or clarification on this event? What is the criteria that qualifies a private individual or operator for the right to take over/hire this venerated world heritage site for any period of time?

“Zimparks are the constitutional custodians of this fragile world heritage site and they serve the people of Zimbabwe by protecting our wild and natural places. Is there no contradiction between this role and the current commercialisation of this fragile place?”

 As part of a running investigation by the Zimbabwe Independent, the publication also sought to understand how much Zimparks charged and the amount of money that was generated from the private event.

ZimParks spokesperson Tinashe Farawo claimed that this was not the first time the area had been barred from the public to make way for a private event which he said was part of the authority’s money-spinning venture.

“Private individuals are allowed to book the rainforest to host private functions. It has happened before; it is not the first time. Normally our VIP entrance get fee is US$150 per individual for international tourists and US$75 for regional tourists while local tourists pay US$35,” he told the Independent.

“It is a premium destination. We are trying to run a business. This is part of commercialisation. All we want is money and it is also part of promoting destination Zimbabwe. This private function included 350 guests from across the globe. The organisers of this event wanted the whole day, but considering how busy this place is it was not possible. We had to settle for two hours. We took two weeks to notify our partners that we were going to close the rainforest for two hours. They paid their entrance fee and that is what we got.”

Tourism and Hospitality Industry minister Barbra Rwodzi said she was “out of the country until next week."

Tapiwa Makoti told the Independent that RSVP first approached DWP in 2022 to lobby for Zimbabwe to host the meeting and “went through a bidding process that included a few site visits” and the country was announced as the winning bidder in September 2023.

“The event had up to 350 delegates, both local and international. These numbers included local and international suppliers and vendors within the industry as well as the world’s top 100 planners and industry gurus and other luxury wedding planners from over 50 countries,” Makoti said.

“The event was only held in the Rainforest for less than two hours from 4pm. The rest of the day tourists were allowed in and out of the rainforest as usual. The delegates were all at Lookout Cafe before sunset and before the closing time of the Rainforest. The Parks and Wildlife Authority were very clear that tourists were not to be inconvenienced.

“The impact of tourism for Zimbabwe is invaluable with positive feedback from the best in the global industry, with many already discussing potential destination weddings and other events happening at various venues and hotels within Victoria Falls this year.”

The congress,which ran under the theme "It is Time for Africa", was attended by delegates from USA,South Africa,France,Zimbabwe,Italy,India,Turkey and France.

The event,which was hosted in Zimbabwe and Africa for the first time is billed by its promoters to spruce up the southern African country's battered image and boost tourism revenue.

In recent years, Victoria Falls has come under Unesco’s spotlight over its ecological and conservation state due to commercial enterprises sprouting in the resort town.

In 2022, Unesco flagged that the world spectacle could potentially be stripped of its world heritage status due to individual activities and cumulative effect of infrastructure projects.


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