Will Smith’s visit highlighted rivalry over the falls ©Shearwater Bungee-Tony Barnett/Storyful
Will Smith’s visit highlighted rivalry over the falls ©Shearwater Bungee-Tony Barnett/Storyful

Zimbabwe pins tourism hopes on $150m airport upgrade

23 March 2017

When Hollywood star Will Smith bungee jumped off a bridge at Victoria Falls in Africa, little did he suspect the controversy it would cause.

The star had already visited Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt in his private jet when he decided to round off the trip with a visit to one of the seven wonders of the world.

But the visit has highlighted a tourism rivalry between two neighbouring countries and pulled into focus a $150m bid by Zimbabwe to attract paying travellers. 

Known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the steam that thunders”, Victoria Falls straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. The attraction has even inspired a local lager in Zambia, Mosi beer. Arguably the best view of the falls is on the Zimbabwean side, but many tourists choose to overnight in Zambian partly because it is easier to access. This is exactly what Smith is said to have done.

Zambian state-controlled broadcaster ZBC said the actor was believed to have stayed at one of the exclusive hotels in Livingston, but then snuck into the town of Victoria Falls on the other side of the border.

The competition is about more than just pride. Zimbabwe, which is struggling to find cash, is potentially missing out on important revenue and foreign currency if tourists choose to stay on the Zambian side. 

The Zimbabwean economy is in poor shape and has halved in size in the last 15 years. Hyperinflation has forced the country to adopt the US dollar – the introduction of “bond notes” pegged to the dollar caused protests and the country is now considering moving to the South African Rand – and the government is struggling to pay its staff and suppliers.

This is part of the reason why the government has spent millions – funded by a loan from the Exim Bank of China – expanding Victoria Falls airport. The expansion has nearly doubled the length of the runway to 4km, creating a new terminal and improving the surrounding infrastructure. The renovated airport, which was commissioned in December, can now handle 1.2m passengers annually compared to 500,000 previously, Africa Business reported.

The first wide-bodied aeroplane, an Airbus A330 run by South Africa Airways, landed there earlier this month.

The new airport is one of the reasons Walter Mzembi, Zimbabwe’s tourism minister, said he was confident tourism would grow this year, despite analysts predicting differently. “In the past we have suffered from accessibility problems and challenges where people were in sixes and sevens on how to reach a natural wonder of the world like Victoria Falls. Now they are able to land there,” he told BBC Hardtalk

Zimbabwean roadblocks on routes to the attraction, with police charging tourists for passage, have also had “impact to a limited extent”, he said. An exit survey of tourists clearly showed the “inordinate incidences of roadblocks” was undesirable, said Mzembi, and he would be pushing for a new system where police wouldn’t take cash. 

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