Despite the impact of the pandemic on the Victoria Falls area – where around 80% of the community is reliant on tourism – the local community has banded together and put a number of unique initiatives in place to prepare the region for revival.
Campaign Co-ordinator for We are Victoria Falls, Shelley Cox, said the ‘We are Victoria Falls’ crisis communication initiative had been established in April last year to communicate and educate stakeholders about the area’s COVID responses and the recovery plans that were being spearheaded in the region. The initiative falls under the Zimbabwe Destination Development Programme, which is run by the Ministry of Environment, Climate Tourism and Hospitality with the support of the International Finance Corporation.
Cox said Victoria Falls had been prioritised by the Zimbabwean government to begin a mass vaccination roll-out to make it the first COVID-free tourism hotspot in the world. This initiative will be complete in the next two weeks, with the region achieving herd immunity, as 76% of the area’s adult population will have received their second vaccination by then.
Credit for this must be given to the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Tourism, who had been hard at work rolling out Zimbabwe’s vaccination programme to minimise the impact of the pandemic on the country’s tourism sector, said Cox. She added that tourism workers in Hwange and Kariba had now also been vaccinated, and mainstream vaccinations were being rolled out to achieve country-wide herd immunity.
“The programme has been so successful that we are being contacted by South Africans asking if they can travel to Victoria Falls to get vaccinated. The Ministry is encouraged by these requests and is eager to roll out a medical tourism vaccination programme once our first priority – to achieve country-wide herd immunity – has been achieved,” said Cox.
To support the residents who lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic, Victoria Falls tourism stakeholders also set up a ‘Work for food initiative’. Residents are encouraged to participate in various activities to improve the town’s aesthetics, from painting to street clean-ups. Workers give of their time for the town’s benefit and are paid with food parcels for their efforts. A children’s feeding programme is also running from Monday to Saturday to alleviate pressure on parents under financial pressure.
Cox said another collaborative effort between the Zimbabwe National Parks Authorities, the Victoria Falls Antipoaching Unit, the Wild Horizon Antipoaching Unit, Zambezi Horse Safaris, Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust and a number of professional guides without work, had seen the community increasing its anti-poaching and snare sweeping activities to maintain the environmental integrity of the area.
Tourists were beginning to trickle back into Victoria Falls, as airlines began to reinstate their flights to the region, added Cox.
BA Comair will resume its Johannesburg-Victoria Falls flights on May 13, starting with a twice-weekly service that the airline expects to increase to a daily service from June 1. From May 30, fastjet Zimbabwe will also increase its Johannesburg-Victoria Falls schedule to a daily service.
Cox said Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines had continued to operate their services and that Mack Air would introduce Victoria Falls-Kasane flights from May 1 to overcome the issue of the land border closures shutting Zimbabwe off from Botswana.
“We have also had a bumper rainy season that has resulted in some of the highest water levels in the area and magnificent displays over Victoria Falls. The next few months are the best time to see the Falls and it would be ironic if there was no one here to view these spectacular sights,” she added.
Glimmers of hope
Director of Mask Expeditions, Rupert Calcott, reported that there had been some glimmers of hope for a return of international bookings to Victoria Falls.
“We have had a recent smattering of new bookings for July and we have eight small-group tours scheduled to depart in the first week of August that incorporate Victoria Falls in their itineraries. These have all achieved the minimum numbers to guarantee the departures and we are hopeful that UK travel restrictions will have eased by that stage, allowing our clients to travel without hindrance,” said Calcott.
He added that the removal of PCR tests and other travel regulations between SADC countries was desperately needed to bring back tourism in greater numbers to the region.
“At present it is still too risky to run our multi-country Southern African tours due to the onerous travel regulations that would require an entire group to quarantine in a country for 14 days if even one member of the group tested positive, whether a false positive or not, for COVID-19 while travelling. The UK is our major source market and clients travelling such a long distance do not generally come here for a few days to see only a small region of Southern Africa. They want to explore the entire SADC region in one itinerary,” said Calcott.