The best of times, the worst of times: the contrasting tourism fortunes of Zambia and Zimbabwe, on either side of the spectacular Victoria Falls, could not be starker. Zimbabwe's loss has become Zambia's boon. Milan Vesely reports.

Author:Vesely, Milan
Position:Tourism
 
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The tourist trade, a major source of foreign exchange in some African countries is now becoming nothing but a distant memory in others. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Zambia and Zimbabwe--two nations on opposite sides of one of the 'Seven Wonders of the World', the majestic Victoria Falls.

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But while Livingston town on the Zambian side is bursting with dollar-spending foreign visitors crammed into newly-built four-star hotels and river-edge lodges, Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls town on the other side is almost a ghost town. The erratic policies of President Robert Mugabe are driving away all but the hardiest of foreign visitors.

This situation is an exact role reversal between the two countries. Until three years ago, the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe was the in-place to be. It was full of hordes of young backpackers and also older, and often richer, jet-setters from around the world.

From bungee jumpers to high handicap golfers, Vic Falls--as the town was fondly called--was the place where it was all happening. Its lively and bustling hotels were perpetually fully booked, on-season and off.

Then came 2000, land seizures, violence, clampdowns on opposition groups and newspapers, a collapsed economy and widespread insecurity. Tourism all but dried up. The drop in visitor numbers has been particularly noticeable from commonwealth countries. Although it is largely unaffected by the violent unrest seen in cities like Harare and Bulawayo, Victoria Falls has nevertheless suffered along with the rest of the country.

Matters were made worse when a group of ex-freedom fighters descended on the town and harassed the few tourists still in the hotels. A government minister ranted against struggling Vic Falls businessmen and called them unpatriotic for even thinking about moving their operations across the river. "We need help, not accusations," said one hotelier.

A worker at the A'Zambezi River Hotel summed up the local sent ment. "Very few tourists are visiting," he said. "Those that come are bitter and complain about the political crisis in the town. Although they have a memorable time they leave with a promise never to come back until the situation improves."

Of the 1.4 million tourists that visited southern Africa in 2002, only some 15% visited Zimbabwe. By December last year, many hotels were experiencing less then 20% occupancy--and it has only got worse. An industry that once enjoyed 20-40% growth rates in the heady...

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