VICTORIA FALS-FRIDAY, November 18, was a historic day for the tourism industry in Zimbabwe as President Mugabe commissioned the new US$150 million Victoria Falls International Airport, which tourism operators in the country said was a game changer in making the country a regional tourist hub.
The Southern Times senior reporter Lovemore Ranga Mataire (L.R.M) spoke to Ross Kennedy (R.K), the chief executive officer of Africa Albida Tourism (ATT) about the new development. ATT is a regional tourism giant with interests in Zimbabwe and Botswana.
L.R.M:How will this airport benefit Zimbabwe in general and the Victoria Falls town in particular?
R.K: A new airport in any destination creates interest and awareness of the destination. In this case, that destination is Victoria Falls. Zimbabwe, as a country, benefits from that same exposure. We are aware from our close co-operation with the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ) that a number of renowned international airlines are in talks with them about routes into Victoria Falls International Airport, and some of those are at an advanced stage.
What will happen in due course, which may be a two- to five-year window, is that Victoria Falls will become the tourism gateway for the rest of Zimbabwe, and, indeed, the KAZA region.
L.R.M: How do you respond to sentiments that the airport is going to become a white elephant and that its construction was an unnecessary expenditure?
R.K: My response is mixed between, firstly, being utterly dismissive of such negativity, and, secondly, the fact that the engagement with international airlines and the global tourism industry has already created significant interest and excitement about the possibilities for Victoria Falls to become a second regional tourism hub.
OR Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, which is the current gateway airport for the region, is under severe stress for a variety of reasons, and for second time and repeat visitors to the continent the ability to bypass OR Tambo will be a significant plus in planning itineraries. Just imagine the potential cost and time saving of not having to land at OR Tambo and have a two- to five-hour wait for your connection, and all of the time and costs associated. Government policy on expenditure on infrastructure should always include all elements, of course, but this project will show and deliver long-term benefits to the country via the tourism sector.
L.R.M: In what way do you think the airport will be a game changer?
R.K: The airport is set to be a game changer because of the scale of the project and the fact that it can now handle long haul wide bodied jets, which in turn opens us up to entire new source markets. In addition, the potential for our existing markets to promote, sell and serve Zimbabwe even better adds further benefit. For example, let’s assume that Turkish Airlines decides to fly into Victoria Falls from Istanbul, the geographic location of Istanbul and its hub status in the European and international markets will offer direct long haul access that currently does not exist.
Imagine just three wide-bodied jets a week landing in Victoria Falls, each unloading 250 to 300 people from new destinations, the impact that has on occupancy and all the associated downstream economic benefits. The impact on employment alone will be significant.
L.R.M: In what way do you think the introduction of the UNIVISA will benefit Zimbabwe?
R.K: The initial year-long roll out of the UNIVISA proved to be a meaningful positive with international source markets to whom it applied. Not only is there a cost saving involved, given that a British passport holder would pay US$80 to enter Zambia for a single entry, and the UNIVISA cost US$50 for both Zimbabwe and Zambia and is valid for a month.
Tourism thrives on user-friendliness and ease of doing business, and the UNIVISA clearly falls into that category, therefore, making it more attractive than other competitive destinations.
L.R.M: Briefly outline efforts that your group has done or is doing to attract visitors and to dispel negative perceptions about Zimbabwe being an unsafe tourism destination?
R.K: Africa Albida Tourism has worked tirelessly for 25 years to promote Zimbabwe to the world and our track record speaks for itself in that regard, be it our own corporate initiatives or joint industry initiatives such as gotovictoriafalls.com or the Best in the West packages with fellow tourism operators across Zimbabwe. We invest resources, time, energy and creativity into promoting our amazing country. Where I encounter negative perceptions about Zimbabwe they are usually related to the economy and what is happening on the ground, but as experienced at the World Travel Market in London just three weeks ago, not a single question or comment was raised about Zimbabwe being an unsafe tourist destination.
L.R.M: Briefly give an account of your entities and their uniqueness to visitors.
R.K: Africa Albida Tourism (AAT) is a Zimbabwe-owned hospitality group with a portfolio of world-class properties in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and Chobe, Botswana. AAT’s hotels, lodges and restaurants are renowned for capturing the very essence of Africa in iconic destinations and luxurious surrounds for that unforgettable safari experience.
AAT’s flagship property is the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, which has been voted the Best Safari Lodge/Resort Hotel in Zimbabwe for 20 consecutive years by the Association of Zimbabwe Travel Agents. It is situated just 4km from one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and, built on a plateau, offering unrivalled views of sunsets and pristine bushveld, including a wildlife-rich waterhole.
Other properties are the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge the exclusive Victoria Falls Safari Club, the Victoria Falls Safari Suites, which are ideal for families and close-knit groups seeking space, comfort and privacy, and the self-catering Lokuthula Lodges. In addition, there is The Boma – Dinner & Drum Show, a must-do legendary experience, specialising in traditional African dining, drumming and dancing.
In Botswana, we have the Ngoma Safari Lodge. Located on the edge of Botswana’s Chobe National Park, home to the largest herds of elephant on earth, this luxurious boutique was recently described in Town & Country magazine as perhaps “the finest safari lodge in Africa”. It is an oasis in a wildlife wonderland.
AAT prides itself in being regional leaders in sustainable tourism, ensuring both the local communities and the environment benefit from visitors.