Victoria Falls feels pinch as tourists stay away

March 24th, 2008 - 11:21 am ICT by admin  

By Clare Byrne
Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe), March 24 (DPA) It’s high tea time at the Victoria Falls Hotel, and waiters in buttoned white jackets are delivering trays of tea, jam and cakes to the veranda. Tourists, wilting in the heat of the late summer sun, flop side by side into chairs and gaze down the manicured lawns at the clouds of mist rising in the distance from the spectacular falls dubbed “The Thunder that Roars”.

Bungee jumpers can just be made out dropping off the Victoria Falls bridge, which joins Zimbabwe and Zambia 126 metres above the fast-flowing Zambezi River.

“I’m Mr Shepherd,” a smiling waiter says. “You’ll be my flock today,” he says as he doles out drinks menus listing such colonial-sounding offerings as I Presume - after journalist Henry Stanley’s reported greeting to explorer David Livingstone at Victoria Falls in 1871.

“Life is very tough in Zimbabwe,” locals say when asked about living in a country where inflation of more than 100,000 percent has made bread, sugar and sanitary towels into luxuries for many.

But at the Victoria Falls Hotel, which boasts of being a retreat for British royals and international statesmen since 1904, French champagne is still served at 5.30 p.m. each day in the drawing room, and diners are entertained by a live band six days a week.

Despite chronic power shortages, the lamps in the lounge are lit throughout the day, overhead fans stir the air, whatever the weather, and thick hand towels in the bathroom are tossed into the laundry basket after a single use.

But eight years of bad press for Zimbabwe and widespread shortages of fuel and food have even taken a toll on this oasis of colonial decadence.

On one day, there was no butter at lunch. It arrived later that day from South Africa. At two million Zimbabwe dollars a box (around 50 US cents at the black market rate), matches to light a cigarette are also in short supply.

The occupancy rate has also tanked.

Less than a week before Zimbabwe’s March 29 elections, in which President Robert Mugabe is facing the strongest challenge in his 28-year rule, 48 percent of the 180 rooms in the hotel that regularly indulges Mugabe’s taste for orange juice and fresh chillies are occupied.

The other two luxury hotels at Victoria Falls, the Elephant Hills Hotel and The Kingdom, also owned by the ZimSun Leisure Group, were also noticeably quiet.

“They (tour operators) are afraid of Kenya-style violence in the election,” says Sailos, a taxi driver.

Sailos hasn’t transported a single customer in three days. “If everything goes right in the election, it will be fine in April,” he says - a familiar refrain in the area.

At the Victoria Falls Backpackers hostel across town from the Falls Hotel, the last inscription in the guestbook, from an Australian tourist on March 5, hopes “it will soon become busier.”

In the meantime, tourists continue to marvel at the blankets of water hurtling into the Zambezi - but base themselves in Livingstone on the Zambian side of the falls.

Zimbabwe’s national parks, including the famous Hwange Park, are also reportedly hemorrhaging tourists. A European couple who visited Hwange in March told the receptionist at their Bulawayo hostel that they were the only visitors that day to the park, which spans 14,600 sq km.

Reports in state-controlled media in December that tourist arrivals grew an estimated 55 percent in 2007 are met with disbelief in Victoria Falls.

“If Mugabe wins this election, I’m shutting up shop,” says the owner of one hostel. “I’m going to shut the doors, let go of the staff and just sit here.”

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