As the big bird received the traditional water cannon salute after landing at Victoria Falls International Airport on Wednesday, it marked the first step in a journey of a thousand miles of attracting wide-bodied planes.
BY NDAMU SANDU
Cameras clicked and whistles blew amid shrill ululation as the South African Airways (SAA) Airbus A330-200 made its way to the parking area.
Days earlier, tourists had flocked to the airport to get a glimpse of a rare bird species which was in Zimbabwe for the first time. The pied wheatear was seen at the airport for about four days, the third time it was sighted in southern Africa after Natal (1984) and Moremi in Botswana (2014), according to professional guide Charles Brightman. David Carson and Gavin Ford were the first people to see the bird and they called Brightman.
The entry of the wide-bodied plane on the route followed the $150 million airport upgrade which gave birth to a state-of-the-art international passenger terminal building and an aircraft parking area with a capacity to park three wide-bodied aircraft such as the Boeing 747 or equivalent. Its handling capacity has trebled to 1,5 million passengers per annum, up from 500 000. The upgrade created a new 4km long by 60m wide runway and associated taxiways, capable of landing long haul wide-bodied aircraft.
SAA country manager Winnie Muchanyuka said the airline saw potential in Victoria Falls, adding that a bigger plane would be introduced if the demand increased.
Africa Albida Tourism CEO Ross Kennedy said the industry had capacity in terms of providing accommodation to tourists.
“Last year, hotels in Victoria Falls did not reach 50% occupation. There is huge capacity. We are assisting where we can to chase more airlines to come to Victoria Falls,” he said.
Zimbabwe Tourism Authority chief operating officer Givemore Chidzidzi said the introduction of a bigger aircraft by SAA and the entry of new airlines into Victoria Falls improved accessibility of the resort town, which was a critical factor in destination marketing.
“Access is a determining factor in terms of success of a destination. People prefer the lowest possible number of stops to access the destination,” he said.
He said the resort town had about 2 000 available rooms and until “we get more arrivals than the rooms we have, we will not rest”.
Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe CEO David Chawota said the authority, alongside government and the tourism industry, had been on a campaign to lure airlines into Zimbabwe following the flight of carriers in the period 2000 to 2010.
The campaign included the retention of the few airlines that were flying into Zimbabwe and provision of services required by the carriers.
He said the upgrade at Victoria Falls Airport meant it could accommodate long-haul flights and the authority would want to link the airport with major source markets.
“We are confident that we are going to link Victoria Falls with major tourist attractions…we could have a Chinese connection coming from the Great Wall,” Chawota said.
“We are targeting those tourist source markets not only for Victoria Falls but Harare as well as Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo airports.”
The airport upgrade has lured regional airlines, with Africa’s largest carrier, Ethiopian Airlines introducing four weekly flights to the resort town effective March 26.
Kenyan Airways will begin three weekly flights to the resort town beginning May 18. Other airlines that fly into the resort include British Airways, Air Namibia, Air Zimbabwe, Rainbow Airlines and low-cost carrier, fastjet Zimbabwe.
Kennedy said the entry of Kenyan Airways and Ethiopian Airways plus the increased capacity of SAA would add 80 000 seats per annum into Victoria Falls.
“These three airlines alone add 80 000 new seats per annum into Victoria Falls International Airport and the region, offering a huge opportunity for growth, as well as connecting new destinations with the incredible Victoria Falls hub and Kaza [Kavango -Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area] tourism region,” Kennedy said.
He said it was a “bright day for the tourism sector across the board in the region, and we applaud the airlines for having the faith and foresight to invest in the route and destination”.
Muchanyuka said the partners needed to keep the momentum going and “see this bird coming every day”.
As for the bird species, no one knows when it would be sighted again in southern Africa.