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Tuesday 4 June 2024

Focus On Victoria Falls As Unrealistic Government Target Drives Unsuitable Development Rush

4th June 2023

Keep Victoria Falls Wild

Just over a week after President Mnangagwa suddenly and very publicly unveiled to the world the foundation stone for a 10,000-steat international cricket stadium at Victoria Falls, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority has quietly published their Annual Tourism Trends and Statistics Report for 2023 (available online here). The report shows that while the country's tourism sector is well on the way to recovery after the lows of the last few years and continuing impacts from the global pandemic, ambitious government plans to develop of US$5 billion tourism economy by 2025, a core part of the National Tourism Recovery and Growth Strategy, are looking increasingly unrealistic. Meanwhile the Victoria Falls, the country's primary tourism destination, faces unprecedented development pressures which threaten their status as a World Heritage Site.

Zimbabwe's Tourism Sector on Road to Recovery

National tourist arrivals for Zimbabwe rose by 54% in 2023 compared to 2022, with a total of 1,602,781 reported arrivals. Immigration data, however, recorded just 114,725 actual tourist visitors (with 445,573 identified as 'in transit,' 650,109 visiting friends and relatives and 282,681 on business). 

Visitors from overseas markets recovered to pre-pandemic levels with 469,240 overseas arrivals, although visitors from African countries reached 1,133,541, significantly down on pre-pandemic highs of around 2,000,000 visitors. Arrivals from European countries reached 208,710, while arrivals from North America reached new highs of 121,953 and arrivals from Asian markets rose to 99,638.

The Report indicates that Zimbabwe's tourism sector is on course to recover to pre-pandemic levels in 2024, levels which saw over 2,000,000 national arrivals annually between 2015 and 2019 with highs of over 2,500,000 in 2018. 

Government Target of US$5 Billion Tourism Economy by 2025 increasingly unrealistic

The tourism sector was reported to have generated US$1.16 billion to the national economy, against US$0.91 billion in 2022. Investments in the tourism sector decreased to US$172.2 million from US$312.5 million recorded in 2022. The country's increasingly unobtainable ambitions for a US$5 billion tourism economy by 2025 would mean a doubling of the sector in 2024 and again in 2025, and only then reaching US$4.64 billion.

The drive towards the ambitious US$5 billion target has seen increasing tourism development pressures threaten the fragile natural environment if the Victoria Falls, the country's prime tourism destination, while nationwide the country's once thriving tourism sector suffers from poor transport infrastructure and lack of investment.

Victoria Falls development threatens World Heritage Status

The race to develop increased tourism capacity has seen the approval of numerous new hotel developments, including the planned Victoria Falls Resort, with 160-rooms, including six river-facing chalets, with seven specialty restaurants, leisure facilities and high-end shops all squeezed into a 3.2 hectare riverside site sandwiched between the A'Zambezi and Palm River Hotels. 

The river-frontage along this section is part of the Victoria Falls National Park, and Victoria Falls World Heritage Site, and the site itself is subject to restrictions on development as part of the surrounding 'Buffer Zone.' The proposals are therefore totally out of scale and inappropriate to the sensitivity of the site and will no doubt add to concerns over the future of the Falls' World Heritage Site status.

Along with several other unsuitable and unwelcome tourism developments in the Victoria Falls National Park (most notably the Baines Restaurant) this proposal should have been notified to UNESCO as part of the State of Conservation reporting process. However the joint State authorities of Zambia and Zimbabwe decided in their latest report to claim that there are currently no new or proposed developments in the World Heritage Site or Surrounding Buffer Zone (Authorities fail to notify UNESCO of new developments at Victoria Falls, 13th May 2024).

Missing Master Plan Opens up Opportunistic Wave of Development

Meanwhile work is still in progress on a new development 'Master Plan' for the City which is supposed to sensitively guide and shape development, replacing the previous document which has been in place since the mid-1970s. It appears to all extents and purposes that the City Council have thrown the old plan in the bin before approval of the new plan and opened up an opportunistic wave of  inappropriate and unsuitable developments. 

The new Master Plan was primarily commissioned to review and incorporate government plans for the development of the Masuwe Special Economic Zone (MSEZ) on a 1,200 hectare site 10km south of the City. Developments announced so far include a four-star hotel with 5,000 seat conference facility, medical facilities, a golf estate and a shopping mall (to be developed by Old Mutual Assurance on 55 hectare plot) and an international cricket stadium (to be developed by Zimbabwe Cricket on a 10 hectare plot).

Controversial Plans for Cricket Stadium latest in wave of unsuitable developments

Which brings us back to the ground-breaking event hosted by President Mnangagwa on 23rd May 2024 on a wide open expanse of land, freshly removed of all vegetation with not a tree or leaf left. Yet with the EIA stakeholder consultation process still ongoing - the first that many local stakeholders heard of the plans was shortly before of the ground-breaking - the development cannot have received final EIA approval (unless it has been approved before the EIA has been finalised). 

There has also been no details on the total cost of the development, or clarification of where the funding is coming from, with Zimbabwe Cricket claiming that it will be funded with grants of US$5-10 million from the International Cricket Council (Concerns grow over costs and impacts of controversial Victoria Falls Cricket Stadium proposal, 24th May 2024).

The site of the MSEZ in part borders the southern section of the Victoria Falls National Park, designated part of the Victoria Falls World Heritage Site (separated by the main Victoria Falls-Bulawayo transport corridor) and again should have been notified to UNESCO in the recent State of Conservation report (Zimbabwe Government plans to develop Victoria Falls ignore impacts on World Heritage Site, 22nd May 2024). 

All of which makes the ground-breaking event look like a rather premature attempt to lure vital foreign investment which will undoubtedly be needed to develop the wider project and vast sums which will be required to bring essential utilities and services to the site - most notably water.

Meanwhile the City Council struggles to deliver basic utilities and services to a growing residential population - estimated at over 35,000 in the 2022 national population census but widely believed to be significantly higher with an estimate of 100,000 indicated in the 2021 Strategic Environmental and Social Impact Assessment Report (State Parties, 2021) - and limited space for expansion. It looks like Zimbabwe's development dream is fast turning into a development delusion.

Read more on the wave of tourism developments which threaten the Victoria falls World Heritage Site on the Keep Victoria Falls Wild website.

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