Wonderful wildlife but high costs deter visitors

Gill Staden

For visitors with time and money, Zambia provides rewarding experiences, but the country is still not drawing in tourists as readily as its neighbours, thanks to over-burdensome regulation

Beyond the immediate vicinity of the Victoria Falls, known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya (‘the smoke that thunders’), little is known outside Zambia of the country’s extraordinary tourism potential. But this vast landlocked nation in the heart of Africa is home to at least three very special, indeed unique, wilderness areas – Lower Zambezi, South Luangwa and Kafue National Parks.

The Lower Zambezi, a floodplain between the river and an escarpment that rises over 1,000 metres, is an area of outstanding beauty. It lies across the Zambezi from Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park – itself a World Heritage Site, a status that the Zambian park could perhaps one day also acquire. In the east of the country, the phenomenally high game density and remarkable wildlife spectacles of the South Luangwa Park make it one of Africa’s best wildlife reserves, although few have heard of it. And

stretching over the North Western, Central and Southern Provinces, the Kafue National Park, about the size of Wales, is divided into two sections. The northern part, which includes the flooded grasslands of the Busanga Plains, is gaining a reputation as a must-see destination and is accessible from the capital Lusaka. The southern area, although virtually abandoned during the 1990s when poaching decimated the wildlife, is now making a modest comeback – its one lodge operates for six months during the dry season.

These natural assets are still very much adventure destinations, far from the better- known tourist attractions in East and Southern Africa. Access is made difficult by Zambia’s poor roads, the high cost of fuel and, in comparison with neighbouring countries, the burdensome regulations imposed on tourism providers. Victoria Falls is obviously Zambia’s main attraction, and a very satisfying one for the first-time visitor, but most tourists to this part of Africa also want to take in a wildlife safari. Within easy reach of Livingstone, Zambia has to compete directly with Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and Chobe National Park in Botswana, both only a two-hour drive from the Falls. Namibia is also now investing heavily in attracting tourists to its parks in the Caprivi Strip. In Zambia, those national parks nearest to Livingstone have been neglected and it is only the more distant big three, each requiring a charter flight or a long drive to get to, that can provide a comparable wildlife experience.

The nearest thing to a tourist hub is the town of Livingstone, adjacent to the Victoria Falls and near where Zambia’s borders adjoin those of its southern neighbours, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The Livingstone area can provide sufficient activities for days of enjoyment, but prices are high and rising.

A core group of travel operators – including small lodges and canoeing and whitewater rafting companies – set up shop in Livingstone in the early 1990s as Zambia began to open up its economy. Many were extensions of companies operating in Zimbabwe where the tourist industry was booming at the time. And ten years ago, when Sun International, a large hotel chain, built its own resort in Livingstone it seemed that good times would follow – many Zambians and foreign investors formed small companies in the town to provide ancillary services. Then, when Zimbabwe became less attractive to foreigners and its tourism nose-dived, Zambia might have capitalized on the opportunity but its costs and poor infrastructure remained obstacles. Now Zimbabwe, especially Victoria Falls Town, is once again attracting visitors and Zambia faces renewed competition.

The tourism industry suffers many of the same restrictions as other industries in Zambia, and operators say it is regulated and taxed to a far greater extent than is the case with its neighbours. All businesses in Zambia have to run the gauntlet of numerous government institutions, each of which wants payment and imposes strict rules, creating piles of rubber stamped documents. A single hotel in Livingstone may require more than 50 costly licences – whereas in Botswana only one licence is required for the same operation.

“It would be much better if all licensing procedures were brought to a bearable level so that people felt that it was an industry to move into,” says Alex Mutale, who runs his own guesthouse and is treasurer of the Livingstone Tourism Association. “Government needs to harmonise all the paperwork so that we can spend our time trying to bring tourists to Zambia rather than filling in forms. It is important that the industry attracts investment from the local people but the cost and difficulty of running a guesthouse  stops them.”

In the hopes of becoming more viable, Zambia’s tour operators have lobbied hard for the abolition of visa charges on bona fide tourists but so far without success. Visitors coming in with their own vehicle are required to pay dues at up to five different offices amounting to around $100 in all. The Kazungula border crossing with Botswana is especially congested and is not very welcoming.

The government seems unaware of the burdens its legislation imposes and is set this year to introduce a further tourism levy and new activity taxes on the industry. With each new tax, companies try to reduce costs. Employees are usually the first to go, followed by community projects and marketing.

In the meantime, the government increases its own staff levels in order to process the new taxes. Despite the enthusiastic efforts of the country’s tourism providers over the past 15 years to make the destination better known, Zambia still seems a long way from being able to make the best of its unique attractions.

About the author:

Gill Staden is an independent travel writer


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