And then there is the attraction for which the town is named, one of the world’s Seven Wonders: the mighty Victoria Falls, a mile-long, 350-foot-high cascade best seen from here in Zimbabwe, residents insist — not from across the chasm in Zambia.
All of which mattered not a whit to Manhattan resident Michael Marsh on a recent morning. He stood on the Zambian side, his baseball cap damp with waterfall spray, and offered a list of reasons why he passed on the view from Zimbabwe.
"I didn’t even consider going across the border," said Marsh, 70, a retired dentist who was staying with his wife, Andrea, 67, in a tony lodge outside the Zambian falls town of Livingstone. "Starvation, cholera, desperation, an irrational dictator. I’d love to be able to support the people, but I can’t support the government."
And so it was that once-thriving Victoria Falls lost two more tourists to its once-desolate northern neighbor, a continuation of a trend that illustrates the reverberations of Zimbabwe’s boom-to-bust economy and chaotic politics under President Robert Mugabe’s 28-year reign and, many in Victoria Falls say, the power of bad press.
Ten years ago, Victoria Falls hotels were often full amid a tourism gold rush, and guidebooks were advising those in search of a less theme-park feel to head across the Zambezi River into Zambia. Livingstone — named for British explorer David Livingstone, the first European to see the falls — was an undeveloped nook in a country that had abandoned communism a decade before.
Then Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms, triggering the collapse of Zimbabwe’s agricultural economy and widespread international condemnation. The years since have been marked by disputed elections marred by violence and repression, inflation that has skyrocketed past 231 million percent and shortages of food and currency.
Now Zimbabwe, a former tourism mecca, is the subject of many Western nations’ travel warnings. Tourism revenue dropped from $777 million in 1999 to $26 million in 2008, according to figures from Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, which are considered the most reliable. The World Economic Forum, relying on sunnier data from the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, predicts the industry will contract more than 1 percent annually for the next decade.
"The tourism sector has suffered because of the bad publicity we have received from our enemies," said Karikoga Kaseke, chief executive of the tourism authority, referring to the Western nations that Mugabe’s government blames for its problems.
Whatever the reason, Zambia saw an opening and began marketing its side of the falls, sometimes as "Victoria Falls Livingstone." Big hotel chains arrived, and risk-averse corporations moved conferences there. National tourism revenue doubled to $176 million from 1999 to 2006, according to government statistics. The Livingstone Tourism Association says the number of hotel rooms in the town has swelled from 700 to about 1,900 in the past eight years.
"Initially, it was a negative for us," Tanya Stephens, a longtime Livingstone resident who manages the new Livingstone branch of the South African Protea Hotel chain, said of Zimbabwe’s slide. "Then Zambia started to go out and say, ‘You can still see Victoria Falls. You can come to Zambia, the safe side of the falls.’ "
January is in the off-season, and the global recession has slowed tourist traffic, but even now Livingstone feels like a town in the midst of a an oil boom. Footpaths along the waterfall were humming on a recent weekend, and recently opened and in-progress guesthouses marked the landscape.
Across the river in the center of Victoria Falls was a shuttered bar and a lonely square. Tourists must bring cash — preferably U.S. dollars or South African rand — to pay for warm sodas at the partially lighted grocery store, because ATMs no longer dispense Zimbabwe’s worthless currency.