Zambia’s tourism prospects
Zambia has some world-class attractions, most notably the remarkable Victoria Falls and the diverse wildlife. However, in spite of an encouraging upsurge in visitors in 2013 as a result of the city of Livingstone hosting the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly, the country is overall underperforming on the tourism front, both in terms of regional standards and its own potential.
According to the Zambian Tourism Board, in 2011 Zambia welcomed an estimated 906,417 international tourists, a figure up from its 2010 record of 815,00, but a number that compares unfavourably with those of its neighbours; there were 1,027,229 international tourists in Namibia in 2011[i] and 2,423,000 in Zimbabwe, while in 2010 Mozambique recorded 1,718,000 visitors and Botswana 2,145,000[ii].
The role that a mature tourism sector could play in boosting Zambia’s economic development is strong, but change needs to occur in many areas if this is to come to pass. Amplified, cutting-edge marketing, more affordable supply costs, staff upskilling, improved infrastructure, cheaper travelling costs, updated regulations, and greater government and civil society buy-in, among other things, are needed if Zambia’s tourism prospects are to be fully realised.
At present a small, two-room building serves as the Harry Mwaanga Nkhumbula International Airport, which is located just outside the city of Livingstone and is the primary gateway for visitors to the Victoria Falls region. A single queue checks all passengers through customs. However a larger, more modern terminal is being built, due to open this year, and this will greatly improve the calibre and speed of the commute in and out of the country, which is needed. The new terminal will increase the airport’s capacity from 250,000 passengers a year to one million.
Victoria Falls is a perennial attraction to visitors from all over the world, and the Zimbabwean crisis of recent years offered Zambia a greater share of tourists, improving prospects in the westerly country. However the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls is up on its feet again, pulling back a measure of tourists.
While the (mostly luxury) Zambezi riverside resorts on the Zambian side offer a superlative visitor experience, public infrastructure in the region is poor and other nearby tourist attractions haven’t been well developed or promoted, encouraging a kind of ‘tunnel focus’ trip, with most visitors flying in to see the Falls and then flying straight back out.
The tourism industry ideally needs to engage visitors in a broader Zambian holiday, both geographically and experientially. For example, Livingstone (the country’s tourism capital) is largely rundown, with high-class visitor amenities lacking, and its historic and cultural attractions are consequently overlooked by most tourists to the region.
Integrating regional attractions
A nationwide programme to promote and integrate Victoria Falls with, say, the lesser-known and as yet uncommercialised – yet gorgeous – waterfalls in northern Zambia could encourage cross-country trips and help develop tourism on the road and in the north. The northern waterfalls have no paved access roads, and so operators there offer a more rugged, adventurous trip, and include visits to local, rural villages, offering visitors a cultural element as well.
The focused development of infrastructure such as hotels, guesthouses and entertainment facilities in the north of the country, particularly in in towns such as Kasama (which is close to the Chishimba Falls Heritage Site and Mwela rock paintings), is a positive sign for the tourism industry in Northern Province, coming to be known as the Northern Circuit.
Other tourist-worthy locations that would benefit from more rigorous advertising, integration programmes and improved infrastructure and access include the country’s vast lakes, such as Lakes Tanganyika and Mweru in the far north, and the nation’s 20 game parks, such as Kafue and Lower Zambezi National Parks which rank among the world’s finest wildlife parks. Lusaka National Park, just outside of the capital, is in the process of being developed and is scheduled to open later this year.
Zambia boasts an abundance of spectacular scenic sites, and has immense bird and game watching, adventure, and water sport opportunities. Moreover the country has its unique cultural and historic attractions to share with the world. These features, spread throughout the breadth of the country, offer great further tourism development potential. Revamped and extended infrastructure, enhanced public amenities, interregional tourism promotion and more energetic advertising would go a long way to drawing a greater number of visitors to Zambia and keeping them (and their money) in the country for longer, thereby boosting the tourism industry and benefitting the national economy as a whole.