Saturday, April 20, 2024

Time for Zambia’s tourism to forego lazy targets and go big

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By Shoks Mnisi Mzolo

Zambia’s tourism sector is set for a bumper year following a few cool moves since late-2022. The sector has hitherto swayed from lousy performance for years. Two of the notable moves were an agreement of the China-Zambia bilateral year and LAM’s resumption of the Maputo-Lusaka line. Now let the fun begin and let government’s top brass forego lazy targets and go big.
The Maputo-Lusaka line will not only bolster the region’s economic and tourism activity and lift productivity, but will also unlock sources of forex and add to Africa’s efforts to foster shared economic development.

This is important as the economy continues to sway from crisis to crisis – exemplified by a depreciating kwacha and rising inflation (after breaching 13% in December). What is the net effect? The number of hunger-stricken people has shot up – beckoning a fall in life expectancy and a rise in social ills (alcohol abuse, school dropouts, teen pregnancies, etc.). For his part, Chimwemwe Mwanza retraced part of the economic malady to the old guard’s borrowing of “billions for consumption [only to sprinkle] some change on infrastructure projects”. The rearview mirror yanks us to the enduring havoc due to the structural adjustment programme (SAP). Founding president Kenneth Kaunda moaned SAP for reducing Zambia’s existence merely “to pay the IMF”, wrote Julius E Nyang’oro in Beyond Structural Adjustment in Africa: The Political Economy of Sustainable and Democratic Development.

So, no matter how tough it is, President Hakainde Hichilema should refrain from yanking a begging bowl or resorting to SAP-type deal. It doesn’t matter who the lender is: Beijing or New York. Hichilema’s focus should be to simultaneously reverse the effects of Team Dununa’s mess and ramp up production to create income opportunities for millions – equitably, across provinces. Quick fixes are anything but.

To switch lanes: government has curiously treated tourism lightly despite its potential to showcase Zambia’s beauty, grow soft power, and earn billions. Ministers Brenda Tambatamba and Douglas Syakalima will readily cite skills transfer, job creation and other aspects. Finance Minister Situmbeko Musokotwane, who must be closely watching the unfolding maelstrom in Malawi, isn’t only a well-rounded economist but has experienced the effects of forex shortages. Thankfully, he appreciates the role of tourism in shared economic growth. But, before you shift all blame to the Patriotic Front, look at the incumbents’ record: juxtapose their missing of low targets with a surge in global demand.

You thus wonder to what extent tourism ministers and their top brass are results-orientated or just, as a routine, trot the globe for meetings: Beijing, Berlin, Dar, Davos, Sandton, Singapore and so on.
At last count, Zambia hosted 1.4-million travellers a year. That is a lowly 2% market share of the 70-million people who visit Africa. In this regard, the 1.5-million target, cited by Tourism Minister Rodney Sikumba, is puny. This year’s target of 2-million is as lazy. While on that, where would the nation’s tally be if it weren’t for Mosi-oa-Tunya Victoria Falls? By the way, that’s the sole Unesco-declared world heritage site in these climes. Indeed, the other half of the falls is in Zimbabwe. Globally, tourism accounts for 10% of employment and contribution to the GDP, versus Zambia’s poor 7.5% on both counts. In contrast, Botswana’s tourism sector accounts for a tenth of jobs.
Independent of tourism, LAM’s re-entry, slashes travel times between Lusaka and Maputo to about three hours from up to 20 hours previously (if you factor in the Ethiopian Airlines’ Addis Ababa connection). By all means, LAM’s move is serious. So is the question of how to sustain demand. SA Airways’ soapie, called suspension-resumption-suspension of flights to Malawi, is instructive.

On the downside, despite its openness and geographic proximity, the landlocked destination is off the radar for holidaymakers, asserted the Mail & Guardian. Zambia has a meditative landscape, plentiful wildlife, thriving art scene, and more. This is a filmmaker’s paradise and a place to be for photographers, but that means little if Sikumba’s team isn’t flying the flag. Furthermore, the country, along Tanzania, is the region’s cradle of freedom. Where else would you find a Cabinet Minister assigned to decolonisation like Simon Kapwepwe was?

Many freedom fighters, including those from the DRC – when Brussels ran the puppet show – found succour here. Lusaka housed the offices, guerillas and members of Swapo, Zanu and, later, Malawi Freedom Movement, at the height of Kamuzu Banda’s terror. Oliver Tambo House and Freedom Camp heritage sites are in Lusaka. The Copperbelt has a piece of Cold War history in the Dag Hammarskjöld crash site. The region abounds with historical places and museums (very thin on patrons though), home to one of the world’s biggest chimpanzee sanctuaries, and great nightlife.

Pity, many khaki-clad tourists barely see that side. Nor do they see other waterfalls, taste African dish, hit dancefloors, sample some Towela Kaira, Slap Dee, Angela Nyirenda, Rikki Ililonga, and Alick Nkhata, or visit museums and galleries. That is because lazily-designed itineraries send tourists from wildlife sightings to Zambezi and Livingstone and to souvenir outlets (sculptures and paintings to mugs, keyrings and T-shirts bearing African maps or images of wildlife). From that routine box-ticking circuit, many tourists dash to airports without tasting Zed’s way of life or interacting with the everyday, non-postcard, Zambia.

Hichilema acknowledges the missing link in promoting Destination Zambia for leisure and business. If focused, Zed can muster 5-million annual arrivals by 2025 – outdoing government’s lousy targets. This is independent of China-Zambia, a link that could see the partners enhance their cooperation in tourism, culture, youth and other fields.
Prior to LAM’s return, most Maputo-Lusaka travellers, flew via Joburg, a prolonged journey that does nothing to save our planet. Carbon emissions are notable amid natural disasters that rock the globe.

Meanwhile, Zambia has removed visa requirement for tourists from Australia, Canada, and elsewhere, not least China. The new policy does little for the continental market as it excludes neighbouring Congo and African nations north of the equator. It’s an anomaly. For overseas visitors, the policy will enable some nationalities, for the first time sans visa, to crisscross the subcontinent by road from the south of Zambezi to Lake Malawi, Ndola and Kalambo – the cradle of artisanship. Sikumba ought to press for Unesco’s world heritage status for Kalambo, a throwback to the world’s oldest wooden object. Some governments – like Zambia’s – have reportedly not sent nomination proposals for Unesco’s approval. Also missing is Kalambo’s paperwork, an indictment if you consider the relics from hundreds of millennia ago.

Back to the flavour of the year: China. This is the world’s largest source market with annual departures pegged at a sizzling 150 million. For Zed to win just a percent of that would set it up big time. Much as the China-Zambia bilateral Year of Culture and Tourism is a boon, market acquisition requires “a lot more than visa openness and a flag carrier”. We argued elsewhere for a comparable and graded tourism industry “replete with human capital, backed by infrastructure.” To become more competitive, this country, a destination described by many as warm and charming (yet unknown to legions of leisure travellers), would do well to arm its hospitality personnel with some French and Portuguese, spoken in neighbouring countries. Don’t forget Mandarin and others.

With so many positive factors in place, what’s stopping Zambia from staging a major turnaround this year? Over to you, Minister Sikumba. Let the sector shoot the lights out. It can. The nation has high hopes.

Shoks Mnisi Mzolo is a roving storyteller with a background in arts & culture and financial journalism. He also works as an independent researcher and is an avid traveller.

8 COMMENTS

    • @Anonymous, you are 100% right. However, most of the establishments are foreignor owned/managed. Locals are treated differently(read with no respect) compared to foreign tourists.
      The whole industry needs to be revamped as the main interest should be developing it fully and earning the tourist dollars Zambia deserves.
      Zambia is blessed with beautiful nature.

    • @Awe Sure
      Yes local tourists are treated differently by foreign lodge owners…..and the Minister of Tourism is aware about the mistreatment of local tourists…..90% of Lodges in Livingstone are owned by foreigners and they take advantage of our weak and corrupt government officials

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  1. @Anonymous. That is where the problem is. Tourism Minister is aware but doing ish about it because he is so comfortable with the situation. I guess pockets lined and all.
    You hit the nail on the head with Livingstone. It is great to see the high numbers of locals on holiday there.
    The potential there is mind blowing..
    As @Sampa the Great commented on Instagram “ where are we going wrong?”…

  2. The #1 problem attracting tourists from Europe etc is air fare. People look for cheaper prices so they go somewhere else. Very simple problem but difficult to address. Local tourism is good but doesn’t bring inflows as the money is already in Zambia

  3. I know of at least 45 Zambian owned small lodges or hotels and there are less than 20 foreign lodges, there is nothing stopping locals from getting into tourism , but the real problem is the Zimbabwes across the border that market and run far more lodges on the Zim side and leave us in the dust, also we have far more taxes and levies on that Zed side. time to accept that the Zimbo’s are not our friends but our cut throat competitor.

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