As Zimbabwe prepares to commission the expanded Victoria Falls airport, doubling visitor capacity at one of the world’s most famous attractions, tourism minister Walter Mzembi here chats with Breaking Travel News editor Chris O’Toole about the facility’s transformative potential.
Also on the agenda are Mzembi’s own personal ambitions to lead the United Nations World Tourism Organisation and the vote of confidence this would provide for the country.
In April 2015, Exim Bank of China provided a $150 million loan to Zimbabwe designed to allow the country to expand the airport at Victoria Falls.
As Zimbabwe’s most prized attraction, the improvements were seen as vital in restarting the long-languishing tourism sector in the destination.
Now the facility is ready to open, bringing a renewed sense of optimism to the hospitality sector in the country.
As Walter Mzembi, minister of tourism, Zimbabwe, explains to Breaking Travel News: “The airport will be able to welcome 500,000 more passengers, now up to 1.8 million a year.
“Combine this with the capacity across the bridge at the Harry Mwanga Nkumbula Airport in Zambia, because remember Victoria Falls is a shared asset between the two countries, and we are looking at up to four million passengers which can be handled each year.”
If the country can get close to these figures it will be a major success, given the years of decline seen in airport capacity.
Mzembi continues: “At our peak, in 1996, Zimbabwe was receiving flights from 48 national carriers.
“Following our meltdown in 1999, the number of national carriers servicing the nation fell from that 48 down to around 14 or 15, which is where we are today.
“Most of those flights have connections into Harare, as the airport at Victoria Falls lacked the facilities to receive the larger aircraft bringing tourists.
“But now we have upgraded the airport to a level where we can land virtually any size and type of aircraft, we hope there will be flights now going direct to Victoria Falls.
“We want to begin a new signing up of those carriers that used to fly into the destination.
“It is a recovery programme, combined with an expansion.
“We have many bilateral air service agreements which we now want to translate into flights so that we can fly correctly into the Victoria Falls.”
Zimbabwe is thus aiming at a number of new markets in order to boost the tourism sector.
“We are seeking to add the United States and new markets – including the BRICS, with a focus on Russia and China especially,” adds Mzembi.
“China extended the loan to build the airport, so we are working with them to see if we can link to three cities in the country, acting as source markets, including Shanghai and Beijing.
“Chinese visitors are already visiting Africa, entering through four hubs - O. R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, Nairobi, Cairo and Addis Ababa.
“We are seeking to add an additional tourism specific air traffic hub, catering exclusively to leisure travel.”
Of course, South Africa remains vital to the Zimbabwe tourism sector, providing nearly 70 per cent of all visitors in recent years.
With the value of the rand falling against the US dollar (which is currently being used as the official currency of Zimbabwe to keep inflation under control) questions have been raised about the sustainability of this market.
However, such concerns are overblown, argues Mzembi.
“South Africa remains strong, whether providing tourists directly, or connecting international arrivals after their stay in South Africa, visiting Zimbabwe.
“If you visit Zimbabwe, you also have access to Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Angola and Botswana – all of these destinations are on offer.”
In total Zimbabwe currently welcomes around 2.5 million visitors a year, with aspirations to see $5 billion spending a year from five million tourists annually by 2020.
This would represent around 15 per cent of total gross domestic product.
The UK will be an important part of any such growth, given the close relationship between the two countries in the past and the potential to move closer together in the future.
“If we were able to overcome the political difficulties, Zimbabwe is a natural holiday destination for British travellers,” Mzembi continues.
United Nations World Tourism Organisation
On the international stage, Mzembi has recently seen his bid to lead the United Nations World Tourism Organisation endorsed by the African Union.
Should Mzembi, Africa’s longest serving tourism minister, get the post, it will be the first time in the organisation’s 43-year history that an African would assume leadership of the organisation.
The election for the role will take place in May 2017.
“We are at a stage now where we are globalising the candidature, trading off with other regions in the world, positioning ourselves, selling ourselves, for the role,” Mzembi explains.
Following any potential appointment, Mzembi is keen to expand the role of the organisation.
“There are 192 members of the United Nations while there are 157 in the UNWTO – there must be universality and we seek to align more members.
“No single country in the world today can claim that it does not have a tourism economy and we are better off with everybody around the table.
“Inclusivity is very good for decision making, especially for the contentious issues, such as terrorism, natural disasters, climate change,” explains Mzembi.
“I cannot image any global organisation going forward to that does contain the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, none of whom are currently in the UNWTO.”
“We want everybody around the table taking decisions that bind everybody.”
Mzembi’s appointment to the leadership of the UNWTO was also be a vote of endorsement for Zimbabwe as a whole, he argues.
“It is a very good thing for the sponsoring country in terms of brand endorsement.
“It will enhance very tangibly the attractiveness of the sponsoring country and, for Zimbabwe particularly, this would mark a significant turning point in our diplomacy.
“The country has been under sanctions from the United States and Europe but declares it would like to belong, to the extent of heading an international organisation.
“The world should encourage that country to come back in and belong to the international community,” Mzembi concludes.