The Santonga project in Victoria Falls, which received environment impact assessment approval in 2007, has been in the news lately with tourism players divided over whether or not it should go ahead. The Sunday Mail Extra Editor Garikai Mazaraspoke to Dave Glynn, chair of Africa Albida Tourism, owners of the project, about the contentious issues.
Q: What is the background to Santonga, what inspired the idea?
A: I travelled a lot with my family to different parts of the globe and visited different parks and realised that we could do a lot better in Zimbabwe. I also thought there was a need in Victoria Falls for something other than the falls as an attraction.
Then I met Professor Lee Berger, a globally renowned palaeoanthropologist, and he commented on how rich the history around Victoria Falls was. I wanted to tell the Victoria Falls story, and the idea of Santonga was borne.
Q: Some call it a zoo, is that an appropriate description?
A: When you are standing on the Santonga site looking west, to the right-hand side there is a fenced crocodile farm with more than 8 000 crocodiles and on the right-hand side of that is a chicken farm. On the left-hand side is an elephant encounter centre, which has elephants in paddocks.
Behind is the Elephant Hills Resort, which is fenced, but has wildlife roaming free on the property. We will not have any animals displayed in cages, glass boxes or pens. We call it “Santonga, the Victoria Falls story” and describe it as an edutainment park.
Whatever animals we do have will be solely for the purpose of conservation education and will be as recommended by specialists and would only likely consist of injured or orphaned animals or the like, or as otherwise advised by wildlife specialists.
We are coming from a conservation bias, in which we have taken the fundamental issue of the elimination of wildlife on the planet as the foundation principle that we would like to have a positive influence on. Wherever wildlife is involved, it would only be done in close consultation with experts, and to convey the messages of conservation. At all times there will be no display boxes, cages or pens.
Q: Those who are against the project talk of downstream job losses, that tourists will no longer go on game drives preferring one stop at Santonga. Your response?
A: Santonga will create 150 direct jobs. The World Tourism Organisation research shows a multiplier effect of 10 times, so we can anticipate 1 500 downstream jobs. We are hoping Santonga will extend visitor stay in Victoria Falls by one night. If we can achieve that, it will extend stay by 40 percent and, therefore, grow Victoria Falls economy by 40 percent.
So the converse is true; it is not about the loss of jobs, but the creation of jobs. With regards to the game drives, we don’t believe that anything we are doing will compete in any way whatsoever with these. We will be quite happy to promote other activities from the site.
Q: There are suggestions that if such a project has to be undertaken, it should be done in Europe, America — places where wild animals do not occur naturally, not here in Africa. The argument being that tourists come to Africa to see animals in the wild. Your side?
A: They will still see that wildlife. The wrong impression has been created of Santonga. Very little of what you see will be on game drives. We are largely talking about the little animals, the birds and even the insects that are lost to view.
According to a recent WWF report, 52 percent of all wildlife on the planet has been wiped out in the last 40 years and the pace of that is ramping up.
If we just take elephant, as an example, more than 100 000 elephant — out of a maximum population estimate of 640 000 — have been poached in Africa in the past three years. A great many species is in trouble and their story is not being told.
At Santonga we are including wildlife both because they are such an integral part of the Victoria Falls story, and to educate visitors on the plight of the species. Again, everything we do here will be guided by specialists.
Q: There are also questions as to why you would want to replicate Great Zimbabwe; won’t you be killing Masvingo as a tourist destination?
A: Quite the contrary, we believe Great Zimbabwe is unusually under-exposed. In no way would we be able to replicate Great Zimbabwe, but what we do want to do is tell the great trading story of Great Zimbabwe, trading as far afield as China, Arabia and Europe 500 years ago; and the vast extended stone structures throughout Zimbabwe and the region, that all connected in various ways at various times. We believe this will heighten interest in Great Zimbabwe.
Q: What will happen to the present corridor animals use to get to the Zambezi River, especially in view of other proposed projects in and around Santonga that will make the corridor impassible by the wild animals?
A: There are two substantial game corridors that exist on either side of Santonga, and those are being completely preserved, so there will be no blockages of those corridors. We are not aware of any other developments around Santonga that might have that impact, but Santonga won’t block those corridors.
Q: What is the present project status? Has it been approved, awaiting approval or been turned down?
A: Santonga was fully approved in 2007 having completed full project status via the Victoria Falls Municipality and multiple relevant Government departments, including a full EIA (environment impact assessment).
Q: You mention that the EIA was approved in 2007. Why did it take eight years to start building?
A: We actually launched Santonga at the main travel show in Southern Africa, Indaba in Durban in 2008, but you will recall the economic and political conditions that followed both locally and globally so that tourist arrivals declined.
Arrivals are now back to a viable level plus the advent of the upcoming Victoria Falls airport plus the new Kaza Univisa , these things have allowed Santonga to come back onto the table. Santonga needs a throughput of 120 000 visitors annually to be viable.
Q: So what is unique about Santonga?
A: There is an extraordinary history around Victoria Falls that has never been told, and that is a considerable focus, and the area of most of the investment at Santonga. It is a great African story. Santonga, will tell the Victoria Falls story from its very beginnings four billion years ago.
As well as history, and wildlife, it will tell the story of the people — with four villages showcasing the different tribes, so visitors can learn about their history, culture and traditions.