Friday, 24 July 2015

Santonga: Tourism game changer?

Arnold Mutemi

SANTONGA Conservation and Culture Park in Victoria Falls is being touted by its promoters as a game changer for the country’s tourism sector, yet opponents say the proposed $18 million project is one investment the country can do without. In a country hungry for investment and new jobs, the Santonga project should have been embraced by all, but this is not the case.

Named by joining San and Tonga, after the original inhabitants of the area, the project in the heart of pristine wildlife land in Victoria Falls will create more than 150 direct jobs with hundreds more downstream when fully operational.

An 80-acre piece of land adjacent to the Zambezi National Park will be fenced off to create space where the history of the falls’ area, going back to billions of years ago will be told.

Its promoters say they can think of no project of a similar nature nor magnitude in Africa.

While tourists visit the Victoria Falls primarily to enjoy the magnificent water curtain spectacle called Mosi-oa-Tunya — the Smoke that Thunders — cascade 108 metres down rocks formed millions of years ago and magnificent game including the Big Five roaming freely in the area, Santonga will tell a story about the Victoria Falls and surrounding area that very few know.

Cultural villages to highlight people’s way of life over the centuries will be built on a ridge at the site. Visitors will be taken through four billion years of time right up to the colonial period.

Guests will also be taken to four different walks through villages including the Tonga, Nambya, Lozi and Ndebele, which will showcase each of their rich history, customs, culture, tribal dress and architecture.

Academics, including professors of archaeology and history, have been engaged to compile content for the project.

But despite the seemingly positive benefits Santonga will bring to the area and economy, it has been met with widespread opposition, especially from other players in the tourism sector.

To its detractors, Santonga is a zoo and they ask who needs a zoo in the heart of the African jungle where four of the Big Five —lion, leopard, elephant, and buffalo — roam in a natural environment.
Only the black rhino is not available as it was moved to safer sanctuaries after an onslaught from poachers.

Zoos, the detractors believe, should be for countries which have decimated their own wildlife heritage.

Tourists coming to Zimbabwe should be allowed to enjoy its wildlife in the natural habitat, not confined in artificial boundaries or enclosures.

A player in the tourism industry opposed to Santonga said it was unacceptable to keep animals in enclosures in Victoria Falls where tourists would come and gawk at them.

Ben Tesa, general manager of Khanondo Safaris and Tours, said allowing the Santonga project to go ahead would place the country’s tourism sector under threat. He sees the project as a zoo, which is unnecessary in Victoria Falls with its teeming wildlife.

“It’s a zoo, the concept is a theme park. We don’t want such a development in Zimbabwe because it destroys tourism. Instead of going to see wildlife in the wild, tourists will end up seeing caged elephants. That’s done in India,” said Tesa.

He said businesses operating game drives and safaris will be the worst affected as their clients would no longer go for these activities, preferring to spend all their time at Santonga.
Chairman of Africa Albida, which is developing the project, Dave Glynn, dismissed assertions that Santonga was a zoo.

He said detractors were calling Santonga a zoo just to discredit it.

“The accusation that Santonga is a zoo neatly chooses to ignore that 90 percent of what Santonga represents is to do with the rich history and culture of the area. The zoo accusation is a deliberate red herring perpetrated by our detractors.”

According to the Cambridge online dictionary, a zoo is an area in which animals, especially wild animals, are kept so that people can go and look at them or study them.

The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia defines a zoo as a facility in which animals are confined within enclosures, displayed to the public, and in which they may also be bred.

Tesa said although the animals might not be kept in cages as in some zoos, Santonga was for all intents and purposes a zoo.

“It might not be a proper zoo, but has the elements of one. We’ve conventional buses and kombis, but a kombi can also be called a bus,” he said.

Tesa said the project was located near two major animal corridors and might affect the movement of game.

There are also concerns that Victoria Falls is already overdeveloped and new infrastructural developments should be undertaken outside the current town limits for the area to maintain its naturalness and retain its status as a World Heritage Site.

Glynn said Santonga would not be the first project to confine animals within enclosures in Victoria Falls.

There are already companies which offer elephant rides and walks with lions to tourists.

“If you stand on the hill of Santonga, to the west and adjacent to it is a crocodile farm with many thousands of captive crocodiles. Next door to that is an elephant interaction site with captive elephants. Next to that is a chicken farm.

“To the east of Santonga is the Elephant Hills golf course with multiple fenced in animals. Several other fenced areas exist containing animals, therefore, technically, Victoria Falls already consists of multiple zoo sites,” said Glynn.

He said the project would bring immense economic benefits to the holiday resort with up to 1,500 downstream jobs created using the United Nations World Tourism Organisation multiplier effect of 10 downstream jobs for every one direct job created.

More than 120,000 tourists are anticipated to visit the site annually with most expected to spend an extra day in the resort town, resulting in massive cash inflows for local businesses, especially hotels which will have improved room occupancies.

An extra night in Victoria Falls translates to a 33 percent increase in hotel accommodation revenues.
Glynn thinks that opposition to the project is driven more by commercial interests than genuine environmental concerns.

A company operating helicopter flights over the Victoria Falls using land near the project site is expected to relocate once Santonga is open to the public.

“The main perpetrators of the negative publicity have a direct commercial conflict of interest with the project.

“At the time of our approval for Santonga, we were informed that the helipad at Elephant Hills was to be moved to the Chamabonda Vlei, outside of town, which is the officially designated site.

“From that time we’ve had continual assurances from both council and the Physical Planning Department that that site isn’t designated for helicopters and that they’ll be moving to Chamabonda Vlei.

“We continue to be given these assurances, and have continued to proceed with Santonga on the understanding that will happen,” he said.

Victoria Falls mayor Sifiso Mpofu who said council is keen to see investment in the town, also said business rivalry was the main factor driving opposition to the project.

Mpofu said the project had potential to benefit the resort town as tourists would stay for extra days.
“Personally, I support the project. As council we’re there to promote investment,” he said.

But Mpofu said council had not yet made a final decision on the Santonga project and residents would be invited to give input when the time comes.

Zambezi Helicopter Company public relations manager Clement Mukwasi said they were opposed to the Santonga project as a matter of principle and not because of threats of the closure of the helipad where they were operating from.

“Santonga as a business can’t shut down other businesses. It doesn’t have such capacity. It can only stop new businesses that controvert it from being born. I can’t see the reason why the government may close an existing business that pays more than a million (dollars) every year into various State coffers in favour of a myth called Santonga,” said Mukwasi.

The local chapter of the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe (HAZ) is taking a neutral approach to the project.

HAZ chapter chairperson Trythings Mutyandasvika said they did not have an official position on the project.

He said the matter could be best resolved at a higher political level.

“My office is too junior to comment when the issue is being discussed at a higher level. The issue is best dealt with by our leaders as opposed to us operators,” said Mutyandasvika.

Source: Santonga: Tourism game changer? (23/7/15)

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