Africa Moyo Business Reporter
The US$150 million facelift of Victoria Falls International Airport, to allow it to handle wide-bodied aircraft, is already paying dividends in the resort town amid indications that passenger traffic has grown by 28 percent between January and October this year compared to the same period in 2016.
Statistics obtained from the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ) show that from January to October, 284 330 passengers touched down at the Victoria Falls airport compared to 222 967 in the first 10 months last year.
This comes as three international airlines – Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and South African Airlink – introduced flights into the resort town between March and July this year. Ethiopian Airlines flies into Victoria Falls from Addis Ababa four times a week while Kenyan Airways plies the Nairobi-Victoria Falls-Cape Town route three times a week.
South African Airlink also flies into Victoria Falls from Cape Town six times a week, resulting in huge appetite by air travellers to visit one of the world’s Seven Wonders.
In emailed responses, CAAZ told The Sunday Mail Business that the upgrading of the Victoria Falls International Airport to allow it to accommodate wide-bodied aircraft types and more passenger capacity, has already seen South African Airways upgrading its aircraft equipment from March 1, 2017 to a 222-seater Airbus A330-200. The aircraft replaced the 138-seater A320.
“Consequently, the airport has witnessed a 28 percent growth in passenger traffic from 222 967 during the period January to October 2016 to 284 330 during the same period in 2017,” said CAAZ.
There is stiff competition for tourists between Zimbabwe and Zambia in Victoria Falls. Neighbouring Zambia also commissioned new radar equipment and a new terminal at the Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula (former Livingstone Airport) on December 23 last year, to make the airport more compelling and try to match the improvements at Victoria Falls.
The Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula Airport, which claims to be closest to the Victoria Falls, has capacity to process 700 000 passengers per year while the Victoria Falls Airport now has potential to handle 1,6 million passengers. The refurbishment of the Victoria Falls Airport, funded by China Eximbank, also entailed construction of a new four-kilometre runway.
Chairperson of the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe (HAZ) Victoria Falls chapter Mr Christopher Svovah told The Sunday Mail Business that the surge in passenger arrivals has translated to a 59 percent rise in hotel occupancy levels from January to November 30, 2017.
“Indeed, passenger arrivals have gone up in 2017 from 2016 mainly due to the new Victoria Falls International Airport that was commissioned in November 2016, which has seen Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and SA Airlink now landing into Victoria Falls for the first time. And South African Airways managed to put the cherry on the cake by unveiling the Airbus A330, which has a capacity of 222 passengers.
“Then again, in December 2016 the Univisa was launched, which now allows entry or exit of tourists from 65 countries in Group B of the visa regime in both Zimbabwe and Zambia using the visa obtained either side of these two countries.
“All these factors have seen occupancy for the hotels in the destination rising from 48 percent in 2016 to 59 percent in 2017, an 11 percent increase as most of these visitors would need accommodation as they tour the length and breadth of Victoria Falls. We are happy that the issue of destination accessibility and connectivity has finally been addressed,” said Mr Svovah.
In the half year to June 30, 2017, Rainbow Tourism Group (RTG) recorded a 2 percent growth in revenue from $11,4 million in 2016 to $11,6 million in 2017 driven by the performance of its two hotels in Victoria Falls. RTG’s two Victoria Falls hotels – A’Zambezi River Lodge and Victoria Falls Rainbow – posted a 13 percent (US$339 000) growth in revenues compared to the same period in 2016.
“This reflects the huge growth potential the region acquired as a result of increased flight seats in Victoria Falls following the opening of the Victoria Falls International Airport in 2016. Revenues from foreign guests continued on an upward trajectory registering a 9 percent growth to $3,8 million from $3,5 million recorded during the comparable period in 2016,” said RTG chairman Mr John Chikura.
Last year, African Sun Limited projected a 40 percent rise in weekly airline seat arrivals into Victoria Falls, spurred by the commissioning of the new airport.
Airline seat arrivals measure the number of passengers carried by airlines. As a result of the commissioning of the airport, Victoria Falls is now connected to major regional capitals such as Lusaka, Luanda, Windhoek, Gaborone, Pretoria and Maputo. A United States luxury and lifestyle travel magazine, Conde Nast Traveller, named Zimbabwe the best destination for travellers to Africa in 2017.
Concerns over pricing
Despite the endorsement of the destination, concerns still linger over the pricing regime of the local tourism product. The use of a strong US dollar as a unit of exchange compared to weaker regional currencies, mainly the Zambian kwacha, is eating into the country’s competitiveness.
Reports suggest Zambia is currently the biggest beneficiary of the boom in tourist arrivals. It is understood that tourists stay in Livingstone, Zambia, and only cross the Zambezi River to have a better view of the Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwean side.
On average, bed and breakfast costs US$200 in three to five-star hotels in Victoria Falls, while the charge is between US$45 and US$180 in Livingstone. Prices of food and beverages are also affordable in Livingstone compared to Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe side). Crucially, during this festive season, most hotels and lodges in Livingstone had massive discounts, something that is alien to local businesspeople.
But Mr Svovah said while they occasionally have promotions to attract more visitors, the cost of doing business in the country is higher than its regional competitors.
“A lot of players normally come up with packages and promotions to lure business but you will appreciate the fact that the rates being charged by the players are necessitated by the high costs along the value chain. The rate so charged is a build-up along the whole production process and reducing these would not make the business viable,” said Mr Svovah.
Victoria Falls has the highest capacity both at the airport and in hotels compared to its regional competition – Kasane and Livingstone. Hotels are fully booked and some enterprising hoteliers had to put up tents at their facilities to accommodate some of the tourists.
In Livingstone, most hotels were are also full.
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