Harare – As the sun sets on the Zambezi river near the tourist town of Victoria Falls, the bustle of a popular arts market melts away with the African heat.
Hidden in the upper floor of the market, the “Nam Took” Thai restaurant was lit up with colourful lanterns.
With tables set, Madam Toy, owner and chef, walked into the kitchen, tossing out the spices she brought from Bangkok to prepare an authentic Thai cuisine for Asian tourists far from their homes.
Toy had previously run a successful Thai take-away in the Zimbabwean capital Harare, but she decided to rent this spacious property a year ago to cash in on an anticipated tourism boom surrounding the Victoria Falls, Africa’s most famous waterfall, which is on par with Niagara in North America and Iguazu in South America.
“The previous tenant rented this place for three months.
“Business was not good, and he left,” Toy said.
“But I say I will hold on and wait.”
The completion this month of an expanded airport in the town after two and a half years of construction is a piece of good news Toy has long been waiting for.
With a $150 million (R2.2-billion) soft loan from the Export-Import Bank of China, the airport has been expanded to include a 4 000m runway, a new terminal with air bridges, and spacious aircraft slots, said Zhang Xinbin, a manager of the contractor China Jiangsu International Economic and Technical Co-operation Group.
“People were not coming to the Victoria Falls because it was simply too difficult to get here,” Zhang said.
“But now, as the airport can accommodate most long-haul, wide-body aircraft, tourists will be on their way.”
David Chawota, head of the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ), said the airport’s capacity to handle passenger flows has tripled to 1.5 million a year after the expansion.
“It can accommodate flights from anywhere in the world. It is now possible for direct connections between Victoria Falls and our key tourism source markets,” Chawota said.
Straddling Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Victoria Falls has the world’s widest white water curtain of 1.7km, surpassing both Niagara and Iguazu (82m). Its height at the centre is 108m, twice the height of Niagara (51m).
Despite its charm, the tourism figures do not look good.
According to Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, foreign visitors to the country totalled 930 276 in the first half of 2015, of whom 87 percent were from the African continent.
For Victoria Falls in particular, the number of visitors stands at about 15 000 annually, compared with the 1 million visitors Niagara Falls attracts every year.
Zimbabwean Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi complained that while Niagara generated $30bn of tourism income every year, Victoria Falls brings in less than $1bn.
Poor accessibility is often cited as one of the causes that prevent foreign tourists from visiting.
Due to its limited capacity, the current Victoria Falls airport serves only two international routes – one to Joburg and the other to the Namibian capital Windhoek.
Zimbabwe once enjoyed the status as the regional air hub in the 1990s, at which time Harare International Airport served 46 international flights.
During the past decade, however, the aviation and tourism sectors slid to collapse as the economy went into free fall, and Western sanctions have only exacerbated the situation.
As a result, some tourists crossed Victoria Falls off their “to-visit” list, while others chose to see the falls on the bordering Zambian side.
The influx of foreign tourists transformed the former textile and trade port of Livingstone into a competitive rival to Victoria Falls town, making the overhaul of Zimbabwe’s tourism sector urgent.
As the Falls ranks as the top tourist destination not only in Zimbabwe, but also in the region, the expectation for the completion of the airport expansion is high.
“The project makes Victoria Falls a very important centre for tourism development and growth in the southern African region,” said Paul Matamisa, chief executive of Zimbabwe’s Council for Tourism.
Matamisa said the industry hoped the Zimbabwean government would take the opportunity to advertise the airport to the international community and lure more airlines from major tourist destinations.
In his opinion, diverting passengers to the newly-expanded airport would not only ease the pressure on regional air hubs like the “oversaturated” OR Tambo International Airport in Joburg, but also benefit other neighbouring countries like Zambia, whose air transport infrastructure still lags behind.
It is not yet clear which airline will launch the first long-distance route to Victoria Falls, but Qatari Ambassador to Zimbabwe Salem al-Jaber said last month that negotiations were at an advanced stage.
With the expanded airport in place, Mzembi said his government would push for the opening of skies, relaxation of visas, and the upgrade of lodging and entertainment facilities to draw more arrivals in an ambitious bid to grow tourism into a $5bn industry by 2020.
Acknowledging that China has become the world’s top outbound tourist market with more than 100 million people travelling abroad last year, Mzembi told local media recently that the cabinet had reached an agreement on granting visas on arrival to Chinese nationals.
Official figures show that Zimbabwe has been receiving about 3 800 to 5 500 Chinese tourists a year. In the first half of 2015, 4 000 nationals visited Zimbabwe on tourist visas, many of whom, however, were believed to have landed just in the capital for business or work.
For Toy, a possible surge of Chinese tourists means another piece of good news for her Thai restaurant, which is the only one serving authentic oriental food in town.
“I know for sure Chinese tourists will come to my restaurant.
“As east Asians, our stomach is more used to steamed rice,” she said with a broad smile, adding with her accented Mandarin that she serves the Chinese herbal tea “Jiaogulan” as well.