Cablegate: Vic Falls Tourism Up - Slightly

Published: Mon 6 Dec 2004 11:56 AM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
061156Z Dec 04
E. O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Vic Falls Tourism Up - Slightly
Sensitive but unclassified. Not for Internet posting.
1. (SBU) Summary: After striking rock bottom in 2003,
Victoria Falls tourism activity has picked up marginally
this year. Still, hospitality sector business at
Zimbabwe's leading tourist destination is probably off
two-thirds from 1997, forcing operators to find
innovative ways to break even. Industry insiders confirm
that Chinese tourists are replacing some of those from
the North America, Oceania and Europe. However, these
operators are universally disappointed by the
unwillingness of Chinese visitors to spend money, whether
at hotel bars or on adventure activities. End summary.
2. (SBU) On a recent visit to the tourist town, econoff
spoke with the general managers of the Victoria Falls,
Elephant Hills and Kingdom Hotels; the managing directors
of the major adventure activities provider as well as the
top transport firm; and the regional head of the National
Parks and Wildlife Service, which administers the
waterfall area and surrounding rainforest. We summarize
their views below (and will channel a sanitized version
through the Commercial Service's International Marketing
Insights for potential U.S. investors).
How Many Tourists?
3. (SBU) Amid GOZ claims of record international
arrivals, Victoria Falls hospitality operators have had
to justify the obvious - that business has dropped off a
cliff since the late-1990s. A recent article in the
GOZ's Sunday Mail, for example, asserted that 2003
foreign tourist arrivals set an all-time record of 2.2
million. In these official statistics, however, the GOZ
counts any border-crossing by a non-Zimbabwean as an
international tourist, including the burgeoning number of
border traders. Occupancy rates at the three hotels we
visited are averaging 30 percent, an informal indication
that tourists are scarce.
4. (SBU) The best alternate statistic we came across was
U.S. dollar entrance fees that non-residents pay to the
Parks and Wildlife Service to view the waterfalls. Based
on these figures, international visitors to the
waterfalls peaked in 1997 at 300,000 and dropped
gradually to a low of 80,000 in 2003. Statistics suggest
international visitors will rebound to 100,000 in 2004, a
25-prcent improvement but still down two-thirds from the
late-1990s. Parks and Wildlife Service Senior Warden Tom
Jura confirmed that Chinese and other Asians accounted
most of the growth, but he would not supply precise
5. (SBU) Yet nearly every operator we spoke to complained
that Chinese tourists spend little money. Managing
Director Allen Roberts of Shearwater Adventures, the
country's top adventure outfit and the oldest in Southern
Africa, said he almost never sells helicopter, bungee
jump, light-hovercraft or whitewater rafting trips to
Chinese tourists. He claims his business would die
without North American/European/Australian clients.
Incredible Potential
6. (SBU) In spite of their present troubles, all
operators boasted of the area's immense tourist
potential. "There's only one Victoria Falls," Kingdom
Hotel acting General Manager Alice Chidawanyika joked.
Tourism is so potentially lucrative, she noted, that the
Kingdom breaks even with only 32-35 percent occupancy.
Director Tom Chuma of Into Africa, a tourism operator
offering a broad array of services, believes Victoria
Falls' "dirt-cheap" real estate prices represent an
opportunity for longer-term investors. Lots are for
sale, he added, with a view of the waterfalls or at least
their copious spray. "If you're not already in the game,
it will be too late when things turn around," he opined.
7. (SBU) The interlocutors also remarked that Livingston,
Zambia, across the Zambezi River, has been absorbing most
recent investment. They believe Zambian hotels,
restaurants and services are still inferior to those on
the Zimbabwean side, but feel Livingston's railway museum
could be a formidable tourist draw. Rather than regard
Livingston as a competitor, most Zimbabwean operators
believed its development will enhance Victoria Falls as a
larger and more complete tourist center.
Waiting for Better Times
8. (SBU) Once Zimbabwe's politics and economics
normalize, we suspect budget-minded Chinese tourists will
be priced out of the up-market hotels. At present, most
of the Victoria Falls' hospitality industry wants any
warm body it can get. In fact, the sector is bracing for
very low occupancies during the Jan-March run-up to
Parliamentary elections. General Manager Fungai Makani
of the Victoria Falls Hotel said he now allows clients
into the hotel dining room without coat and tie, a
notable concession at this stately colonial enclave.
Elephant Hills General Manager Mark Havercroft said the
overvalued zimdollar has scared off so many international
tourists that he now focuses his marketing more on the
domestic market. On a more positive note, the city's new
Tourist Police seems to be deterring crime and the Parks
and Wildlife Service knows of only one incident (non-
violent) within the rainforest this year.
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