Monday, Mar. 18, 2002
In Victoria Falls most people voted for Morgan Tsvangirai, hoping that he would bring change and a return to better times. But this town of about 50,000 people, Zimbabwe's trademark tourist mecca, is a sad example of the country's plight under Robert Mugabe. To survive, Mugabe defies the world; to survive, Victoria Falls needs the world. As long as Mugabe remains in power, Victoria Falls will remain in economic limbo.
In August 1999 Mugabe officially opened The Kingdom Hotel at the Falls. Built at a cost of $26.3 million, it was the largest tourism investment in the country since independence in 1980. Cleverly modelled on buildings of historic central African empires, the Kingdom's décor is superb, most of it consisting of natural woods, thatch and stone. At the entrance stands a sculpture of 4-m-high African warriors, spears and shields raised. Water features cascade throughout the hotel grounds; kingfishers skim across the artificial lakes; mongooses scurry among the syringa, acacia, flame lily and bougainvilleas, while monkeys and baboons chatter in the baobab and giant fig trees. With luxury air-conditioned rooms, glitzy shops, four restaurants, three bars and a casino, it is a tourist's paradise.
But the international isolation and economic squeeze that have resulted from Mugabe's disasterous land invasion policies and his crackdown on political opponents have made it a paradise almost lost. There was a time when so many tourists came to see the Falls that the area was in danger of environmental damage. But the past two years of political and social turmoil have scared visitors off. British and American embassies warn away potential travellers. During last week's voting, there were no more than a dozen diners at the Kingdom's 300-seat restaurant. In the casino, the cashier desperately offered a few die-hard customers almost three times the official hotel exchange rate for U.S. dollars.
At the Victoria Falls Hotel nearby, there are more waiters than guests. They spend their days straightening the silver and the crockery and re-folding the napkins on the terrace, which offers a magnificent view of the Zambezi, the Victoria Falls railway bridge and the roaring cataract beyond. "There are not many who come to look anymore," says safari guide Breeze Dlhamini. He voted in the crowded Victoria Falls township of Chinotimba, queuing patiently with many others in the scorching heat. "Of course, I voted for Tsvangirai," he said. "We all did. We can't go on like this. Soon this place will just close down."
Over the past two years, several tourist and safari companies and white-water rafting outfits have shut down. Local peasant handicraft workers, who once made a living selling from the side of the airport road, have drifted back into the bush. Elephants wander across the highway, but there are no wide-eyed tourists fighting to photograph them. At the neat little Victoria Falls airport, the bureau de change has no money to exchange.
A few companies still eke out a living from the trickle of visitors, usually from South Africa or Europe. There are helicopter flights over the waterfall, game viewing safaris to nearby Hwangwe National Park, sundowner "booze cruises" on the Zambezi and a steam train trip to the bridge that spectacularly spans the river gorge. But there are more travellers these days to hotels on the Zambia side of the Falls. "Zimbabwe has become a no-go place," says tour operator Sipiwe Matebula. "We have Mugabe to thank for that."