NY Times News Service
With a name like that, one would think this town would have no trouble attracting tourists. After all, Victoria Falls, the town, is cheek-by-jowl with Victoria Falls, the waterfall – a
jaw-dropping, heart-stopping torrent almost 2km wide and 100m high, its constant roar audible for some distance, its towering cloud of spray visible from the farthest horizon. Mere words do not do justice to Victoria Falls. One must see it to appreciate it.
Where better to start to see the waterfall than Victoria Falls, the town? Until lately, the answer was “nowhere”. In the contest for falls-hungry tourists, Victoria Falls towered over its only rival, Livingstone, just across the broad Zambezi River in Zambia.
Lively Vic Falls embraced everyone from backpackers to jetsetters, bungee-jumpers to golfers. Livingstone, dishevelled and sedentary, had some historic cachet: It is named after the explorer David Livingstone, the first European to see the falls. But for tourists, it was an afterthought.
Then Zimbabwe imploded. And the tables turned. Suddenly, prosaic Livingstone is hot, jamming visitors into new four-star hotels and river’s-edge lodges, bursting with upscale craft and souvenir shops, clubs and casinos.
Victoria Falls is not.
“There’s just no one coming here,” a disconsolate businessman said, a conclusion borne out by even a brief stroll in the deserted shopping district. Since early 2000, when squatters began occupying that nation’s white-owned farms in what would become a wholesale seizure of commercial farmland, tourism in Zimbabwe has hit the skids.
Things grew worse in 2002, after Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was re-elected in balloting marred by widespread violence. It deepened further last year, as inflation roared past 600% and fuel shortages became pervasive.
In truth, Zimbabwe’s violence and repression have largely passed by Victoria Falls. The region is so solidly in the camp of Mugabe’s political opponents – and such an important source of scarce hard currency – that the government has avoided measures seen in other opposition centres, such as the invasions of pro-government youth militia, which might scare tourists away.
But Zimbabwe’s reputation has grown increasingly ugly, especially among tourists from members of the Commonwealth nations, mostly former British possessions. Mugabe quit the Commonwealth last December after it refused to lift its suspension of Zimbabwe in protest of its human-rights policies.
Zimbabwe’s loss has been Zambia’s gain. Livingstone’s hotel occupancy since 2000 has jumped to 50% from an average of 36%, despite a brace of new hotels.
The contrast with Victoria Falls could hardly be more stark. Zimbabwean businessmen say average hotel occupancy runs between 20% and 30%, and some of the bigger four- and five-star resorts have severely pared their staff to keep from closing. The world-famous grand dame of local hostelries, the Victoria Falls Hotel, marked its centennial this month with hallways of empty rooms despite an effort to lure celebrants with a 100th-birthday package.
The plight of merchants is, if anything, bleaker. Souvenir shops on the main street to Victoria Falls sometimes pass the entire day without ringing up a single sale, one vendor said. Some wholesalers and street vendors have given up and moved their operations to Zambia, prompting a government minister to denounce them as unpatriotic.
Things could change, of course: Longtime residents remember that Vic Falls prospered most in the 1970s, when Zambia’s economic policies drove that nation and its tourism close to ruin.