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Troubled Zimbabwe Losing a Rare Bright Spot

Zimbabweans struggle to find food and clean water during a raging cholera outbreak, while even burying the dead has become difficult in a devastated economy and unstable political situation.

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 an oil boom. Footpaths along the waterfall were humming on a recent weekend, and newly opened and in-progress guesthouses marked the landscape. Another big hotel and a supermarket were under construction. A new, tourist-friendly pub on the main drag is "very busy in the evenings," taxi driver Evans Mumbuaa said.

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.

"They didn't have any postcards in the nice hotels!" said German retiree Ruth Burchardi, who was sipping coffee near a guesthouse pool. She said she knew nothing of Zimbabwe's political situation until friends told her she was crazy to have booked a trip there.

Down at the falls, the few tourists were mostly from other African nations. Among the exceptions were two German engineers on a journey through southern Africa by four-wheel-drive. But they had been warned that a road trip into Zimbabwe would invite hassles from police, so they came just for the day, with a tour guide from across the border in Botswana.

"My girlfriend and my parents, they are worried. But we have got all our food and drinks here, so we are fine," said Erik Theis, 35, patting his backpack as he watched a bungee jumper plunge from the bridge that connects Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Such comments bring grumbles from Victoria Falls tourism operators, who bemoan negative headlines and stress that the nation's woes have largely bypassed the town. Violence and political unrest are rare and have never affected tourists, they say, and proximity to stocked shops in Zambia and Botswana allow hotels and restaurants to offer first-rate menus and amenities.

But things are dire enough that the hospitality industry has had to keep the town functioning. Operators interviewed in Victoria Falls said some businesses take turns buying chemicals to treat the town's water supply, and one outfit recently bought an engine for the trash truck.

More officially, several operators banded together three years ago to launch a $150,000 campaign and Web site, GoToVictoriaFalls.com, aimed at reclaiming the town's good name.

The campaign was working, operators said, until a cholera epidemic hit this fall. The illness, which has killed nearly 2,800 in Zimbabwe, has not touched Victoria Falls. Even so, the tour company executive said, fears have led to a 30 to 40 percent drop in sales.

"There's no marketing magic against infectious disease," said one guesthouse owner, who said the outbreak has led travelers to cancel bookings.

Richard Chanter, who 10 years ago opened one of Livingstone's first guesthouses, said that despite the benefits the town may have reaped from Zimbabwe's tumble, his wish was for stability in the neighboring country.

"Not too many people in America can differentiate between the two places," he said. "In terms of overall marketing, surely it's better if the whole region can be visited."

A special correspondent in Harare, Zimbabwe, contributed to this report.


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