Zimbabwe - hottest safari ticket in town?

by John Berry (via ATTA Travel Updates) • 23 September 2013

Isn't it about time that politicians and punters alike put conservation first to support the many Zimbabwean players who've quietly carried their side of the bargain in the last decade?

It's an opportunity to right some wrongs and let a fresh generation of travellers really appreciate Zimbabwe's fine hospitality in some of the continent's greatest wilderness areas.

Zimbabwe could just be the hottest safari ticket in town in years to come.  Here's why:

A NEW STAGE IS SET IN ZIMBABWE
So Zimbabwe's recent election passed without violence and the old incumbent at 89 was inaugurated for a 7th term after 33 years in office.  A new cabinet has been chosen to take the challenge of fixing the economy after more than 13 years of degeneration.  Just as Zimbabwe's 8th Parliament opened the EU announced intentions to remove restrictive measures against the government's diamond mining firm.  The mining sector projects that Zimbabwe's Marange diamond fields are set to be the largest diamond producing project in the world this year.  A curse or the economy's saving grace?
Does it all matter?  The new government is determined to "prioritise the revival of keys sectors of agriculture, mining, tourism and manufacturing".

So within the last month the UN World Tourism Organization's annual general assembly convened in southern Africa's "safari central" of Victoria Falls and some over-enthusiastic local talk of plans for Africa's $300m "Disneyland" in the area has been replaced by dealing with real issues in the tourism industry.

- In the last fortnight 69 elephant carcasses have been recovered in Hwange National Park after a mass poisoning by poachers.  Ministers Kasukuwere, Mzembi and Moyo reacted with a quick visit.  Importantly Saviour Kasukuwere said that he'd "encourage the shoot to kill policy" and a government taskforce is set to probe rampant elephant poaching in Zimbabwe.  Strong words indeed but perhaps the new government will now actively support the global conservation fight against this onslaught on Africa's elephants.

- In the past week Zimbabwean conservation pioneer, Clive Stockil was presented a lifetime Prince William Award for Conservation for his work with Rhinos (see picture above).  Recognised as a long-time champion of wildlife and communities in the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area, Gonarezhou National Park and the Save Valley Conservancy this result has been achieved against staggering odds.  Stockil said that the award was shared with many including Chief Mahenye and the village elders  - the notion that "failure is not an option" created energy for the effort.  Perhaps there's still hope for this uneasy balance to get righted?

- Mana Pools National Park within the lower Zambezi's UNESCO World Heritage Site and even larger UNESCO Middle Zambezi Biosphere Reserve faced its most recent threat (July 2012) which included proposals to explore the potential for mining within Mana Pools.  Perhaps restrained during the long run up to last month's UNWTO assembly the mining proposal has since been silenced.  So with delegates gone, conservationists, environmental NGOs, tourism associations and regional stakeholders watchfully uphold UNESCO's far-sighted recognition of the Middle Zambezi as a critical and irreplaceable global asset.

So perhaps the stage is set for fresh support from government?

A BACKDROP TO ZIMBABWE'S SAFARI INDUSTRY
Pre-2000, Zimbabwe had a conservation record second to none in southern Africa.  The country was home to a healthy crop of Africa's top professional guides for whom walking safaris, canoeing and real adventures were the product of superior guide training and great enterprise supported by good infrastructure.  With diverse habitats, prolific wildlife and varied safari options Zimbabwe commanded some of the best rates in southern Africa's maturing safari industry.

Then in 2000 the country's politicians simply dimmed the lights.  Aside from a socio-economic disaster about to be delivered to the people of Zimbabwe, international tour operators and the country's traditional markets simply reacted by withdrawing support. Why not?  The safari industry is governed by market forces and punters had other choices.  The result - hotel and lodge occupancies shrank, visitor numbers plummeted and the country's wildlife and conservationists were left stranded.

Meanwhile traditional safari markets in East and Southern Africa boomed.  Investment in camps and lodges rose, occupancies climbed with supply and rates increased steadily until the 2008/2009 "credit crunch" shook the entire industry. At that point a high-standard safari in Zimbabwe was around 30% less expensive than an equivalent trip in Zambia, almost half the price of a comparable safari in Botswana or Tanzania.

So for eight years, whilst safari volumes grew elsewhere, Zimbabwe's industry stagnated. Costs were mostly held in check and prices dropped with not much profit or tax remittance left over.  Hard times indeed, especially for wildlife, custodians and conservationists.

Some things never changed in Zimbabwe though.  Zim guides and hosts still feature regularly in the top-10 lists held by industry professionals.  That willingness to "make a plan" and healthy "can-do attitudes supported by warm smiles in the quiet years meant that delivering excellent service to fewer clients just enriched visitor's safari experiences - and so, great hospitality and friendly service remains one of Zimbabwe's firmest guarantees.

REAL CHANGE HAS BEEN BUILDING SLOWLY IN ZIMBABWE
Over the last 5 years whilst the rest of Africa's safari industry has contended with rebuilding, marketing and sharpening post credit-crunch prices and offerings, some important events might have slipped the attention of pre-2000 visitors who haven't been back since.

- The economy turned overnight when the US$ replaced the Zimbabwean dollar in April 2009 (Exchange? ZWD308 trillion = USD1).  Photos of empty shelves across the country are long gone.  Anything you can purchase over the counter in neighbouring South Africa is now freely and competitively available in Zimbabwe.  From tyres to fuel to fruit to medicine.

- Travel warnings were lifted and media restrictions were eased in 2009.  Visa policies are in the process of been refined by the Ministry and Department of Immigration and regional partners have welcomed recent developmentssince UNWTO.

- Hoteliers are reporting year on year growth.  Ross Kennedy, CEO Africa Albida Tourism reported 20% average room rate growth during 2012 over 2011.  This is supported by recent comments from the Minister for Tourism to the effect that during the first half of 2013 arrivals into Zimbabwe increased by 12% with the tourism industry set to grow in the second half.

- The private sector has been hard at marketing internationally and focussing on product development, training and conservation at home.  Investments over the last two years have resulted in upgrades and additional lodges in Matopos, Hwange, Kariba and Victoria Falls. By every account operators endorse the view that the growth trend now has its own momentum but that the work isn't yet complete.

- Whilst the "old milk run" connecting Victoria Falls, Kariba and Hwange might not be up and running yet, Victoria Falls Airport is becoming an increasingly important hub into Southern Africa's safari hub.  It's refurbishment due complete by April 2015 will more than double passenger capacity and accommodate wide-body aircraft (Boeing B747-400s and Airbus A340s).

- A telling thing has been that in addition to growth from traditional source markets in North America, Australia and the UK over the last few years there's been fresh growth by visitors from an additional 29 new countries.  If conservative travellers wake up too late they might just find beds already occupied by a new generation of adventurers experiencing some of the best Africa has to offer.

IT'S TIME TO REDISCOVER ZIMBABWE
So despite many traditional safari-goers having chosen other destinations in the last decade, Zimbabwe's old attractions have become the smart choice.  Conservationists have produced results against odds, the authorities appear to be making all the right moves to support the industry and players have kept their side of the bargain.

Visitors who make the effort to get on safari in 2014 will be greeted by some big personalities, warm smiles and simply tremendous service.

This good news comes with a warning, "if you leave it too late you might just find that the hottest safari tickets in town have all been sold out!

 

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