Zimbabwe’s tour operators were starting to talk recovery, but now ‘distressed and disappointed’ as travel orders snuff out hopes

The new Kariba Safari Lodge: Operators had stepped up facilities, but COVID-19 has left them empty

Just as some players in Zimbabwe’s tourism industry were starting to get a cheer from small signs of recovery, the new omicron variant and tough government measures on travelers have sent them back into “distress”.

Two weeks ago, Africa Albida, one of the country’s biggest tour operators, sent out an upbeat statement, encouraged by green shoots.

Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, the company said on November 17, had just recorded its highest occupancies since March 2020, and “operators in Zimbabwe’s top tourist destination optimistic of a recovery following the collapse of the industry”.

Occupancy across Africa Albida’s sites, Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, Victoria Falls Safari Club and Victoria Falls Safari Suites’ 98 rooms had reached 33% in October.

The approaching holiday season was “showing good signs of being the busiest month since the start of the pandemic with new enquiries and bookings still coming in daily”, Africa Albida chief executive Ross Kennedy said in that statement.

“The forward booking pattern seems positive at this time and from the second quarter of 2022 onwards there appears to be real momentum building,” Kennedy said.

But, he had warned then, “we take nothing for granted in an ever-changing, extremely competitive environment”.

He was right. Much has changed since then.

First was the emergence of the new omicron variant. It saw many countries, including Zimbabwe’s biggest source markets, banning travel to Zimbabwe and much of the region.

Then there was more damage to come, this time from measures announced at home.

Government, on Tuesday, ordered that all travelers to Zimbabwe, including citizens, must be quarantined on arrival for 10 days, with no exceptions. Restaurants must also close at 7PM, peak time in the business.

The Tourism Council of Zimbabwe, which represents tour operators, says the damage will be significant for an industry already facing collapse.

“The leadership of the council is distressed and disappointed that yet another hurdle has been placed in our collective way. We will do all we can to resolve this situation so that negative effects are minimised or eliminated,” the council said in a statement reacting to government’s measures.

“We recognise the enormous impact of these decisions on communities, businesses and families, especially at this time of year, which traditionally is a time of family engagement.”

There must be a better way that “minimises the economic impact on our sector while at the same time works towards a stabilisation of the threat to public health. In this regard, we are engaged in discussions with the authorities with a view to having our opinions and advice heard.”

But government on Tuesday said it had already chosen to ignore the sector’s pleas.

“Cabinet also resolved to put on hold requests from the tourism industry to further open up travel in order to allow for the monitoring of the situation of the new variant and its impact during the next two weeks,” Cabinet said after its weekly meeting.

The industry needed at least six months of no interruptions to have a chance to recover, Tourism Minister Mangaliso Ndlovu says. One operator that he had spoken to had cancelled bookings worth over US$200 000, and many fear the industry may not survive more losses.

But Ndlovu insists the measures were necessary to avoid the spread and stave off even stricter lockdowns, as happened last year.

The industry, which lost virtually all its annual earnings of US$1 billion to COVID-19 last year, was already deep in crisis.

In November, Arden Capital, the main shareholder in African Sun, said it was going into liquidation as its investment in the hotels group had been hit by the pandemic. Hotel occupancy at African Sun for the nine months ended 30 September 2021 was 25%, up just 6 percentage points from the same period last year.

According to Meikles, hotel occupancy at Victoria Falls Hotel, which it jointly runs with African Sun, was only 12.89% in the half-year to September. At Rainbow Tourism Group, occupancy was 24%, only a percentage point better than this time last year.