Tourist arrivals in Zimbabwe will end the year at a record 2.7 million, after a boom in the traditionally slow first half and increased traffic via the new Victoria Falls Airport gave leading operators their “best year ever”.
Arrivals in the first quarter, which is usually a low business period for the industry, was up by 50%, according to Government data, corroborated by leading private players such as Africa Albida, which says occupancy at its facilities is at its highest ever level.
“We expect to end the year with 2.7 million visitors to Zimbabwe as hotel occupancy levels in major resorts such as Victoria Falls are now over 80%. We are working to attract more investors to build more hotels in order to sustain increased business levels and meet demand for hotel rooms,” says Tourism Minister Prisca Mupfumira.
This would be higher than the 2.25 million visitors reached in 1999, Mupfumira said. Tourism was one of Zimbabwe’s major industries, but it collapsed after violent land takeovers and elections kept visitors from traditional source markets in Europe and North America away.
Africa Albida says occupancy at its flagship operation, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, was 81.5% in the year to September, up from 71.7% over the same period last year, according to company PR Marianne Betts. The facility had experienced its busiest August ever, with occupancy of 88%. Occupancy across ten hotels in the town rose from 53.6% to 58.7% year-on-year,
Company CEO Ross Kennedy attributed the growth to the expansion of Victoria Falls International Airport. “The new Victoria Falls Airport, with its geographical hub location, plus much enhanced route access and connectivity, has played a part in the growth of the destination”.
Surprise boom time
This year, all major tourism operators reported a strong first half year.
Africa Sun, in its results for the first half, reported “remarkable increase in volumes across the hotels”, as its city hotels benefitted from elections while its Victoria Falls operations “benefited from increased foreign arrivals”.
Occupancy level increased 10 percentage points to 55 percent in the first half. International arrivals rose by an average of 15%. The company is betting on infrastructure projects, such as the upgrade of the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport and the Beitbridge highway for further recovery.
Patrick Matute, MD of Dawn Properties, owner of the facilities operated by African Sun, said of the half year: “Trading conditions improved significantly for our tenant AfricanSun, with a better than expected performance in what is traditionally their low peak period”.
Hotel operator Brainworks saw its occupancy rates rising 20% in the first half of this year, attributed by CEO Brett Childs to the change of president last year and the new airport at Vic Falls.
According to Wilderness Safaris, forward bookings from North America, Europe and the UK grew this year, as did demand for longer itineraries in the safari areas.
While Zimbabwe’s tourism sector was in crisis, facilities fell behind other markets on quality. Companies are now looking to invest in building new tour facilities or renovating existing ones.
At Meikles, executive chairman John Moxon said recently that the company is expanding the Victoria Falls Hotel to meet increased demand for rooms.
Rainbow Tourism Group also has set aside $1 million to redo 88 rooms at Victoria Falls. So far, 46 rooms have been renovated.
Brainworks Brett sold its financial services business to focus on tourism, according to CEO Childs. There has not been any new large hotel built in Zimbabwe for years, and the company is now buying land to build new hotels to prepare for higher demand.
Africa Sun head Edwin Shangwa, at an AGM mid-year, told shareholders that the company was refurbishing Holiday Inn Mutare, Kariba’s Caribbea Bay, Hwange Safari Lodge and the Victoria Falls Hotel.
Off the beaten track
However, more and more tourists are looking away from traditional accommodation and looking for adventures elsewhere.
Sharon Stead, of Amalinda Safari, told the Telegraph of UK recently: “There’s now more interest in destinations off the beaten track.”
Operators are investing in building facilities that meet the demands of such visitors, with new bush lodges and tented camps planned.
Great Plains Conservation, which operates retreats in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, recently acquired some land in Sapi, near Mana Pools, where it is building camps, according to its head Jonathan Hudson. Great Plains also plans to build a luxury camp in the Zambezi National Park.
Wilderness Safaris this year reopened Little Makalolo, a bush camp in the Hwange National Park, which had been closed for years. Zambezi Cruise Safaris plans to open Kulizwe Marina Lodge in Binga Town and the Crowned Eagle Boutique Hotel overlooking Kariba.
Companies are also targeting low-budget and domestic tourists, with Shearwater investing $35 million into low-cost lodges across the country. The company has already completed the Explorers’ Village, a cluster of low-cost lodges at Vic Falls, at a cost of $4 million.
For the first time in years, this year Zimbabwe got some good PR from the global travel press, with positive reviews from media such Telegraph Travel, Huffington Post and The Vanity Fair and recommendations by travel platforms such as Lonely Planet, National Geographic, Japan’s Seichi Travel and Frommers.
But while the half year was good, the last quarter has seen the return of fuel queues, rising inflation and worsening foreign currency shortages, factors that may slow the recovery in 2019. Many operators are still uncertain as to how to treat foreign currency payments, according to Tourism Business Council president Paul Matamisa. “It doesn’t look like there is common way of how do we do things and that creates a lot of problems for operators,” Matamisa was quoted as saying recently.
Poor air access inside the country remains also a key concern. Air Zimbabwe was this year placed under administration, although Transport Minister Joel Matiza confirms that the company is looking to buy three Embraer E145 by the first quarter of 2019 for the airline to work regional and domestic routes.
Zimbabwe is also far more expensive than its regional competitors, such as Zambia, Botswana, Kenya and Mozambique.