By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 25, 2009
VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe -- This hamlet is swathed in lush emerald rainforest, a serene place that is 500 miles from political turmoil in the nation's capital but seems a galaxy apart. Baboons frolic on hotel grounds, luxe lodges serve ostrich carpaccio, and tour operators tout sunset cruises and safaris.
And then there is the attraction for which the town is named, one of the world's wonders: the mighty Victoria Falls, a mile-long, 350-foot-high cascade best seen from here in Zimbabwe, residents insist -- not from across the chasm in Zambia.
All of which mattered not a whit to Manhattan resident Michael Marsh on a recent morning. He stood on the Zambian side, his baseball cap damp with waterfall spray, and offered a list of reasons why he passed on the view from Zimbabwe.
"I didn't even consider going across the border," said Marsh, 70, a retired dentist who was staying with his wife, Andrea, 67, in a tony lodge outside the Zambian falls town of Livingstone. "Starvation, cholera, desperation, an irrational dictator. I'd love to be able to support the people, but I can't support the government."
And so it was that once-thriving Victoria Falls lost two more tourists to its once-desolate northern neighbor, a continuation of a trend that illustrates the reverberations of Zimbabwe's boom-to-bust economy and chaotic politics under President Robert Mugabe's 28-year reign and, many in Victoria Falls say, the power of bad press.
"Livingstone has become a success because of what's happened in Zimbabwe," said a Zimbabwean executive with a tourism company that operates on both sides of the falls, expressing an opinion that many in Livingstone do not dispute. "There's no way, to the extent that it has grown, that it would have happened without the downturn here."
Ten years ago, Victoria Falls hotels were often full amid a tourism gold rush, and guidebooks were advising those in search of a less theme-park feel to head across the Zambezi River into Zambia. Livingstone -- named for British explorer David Livingstone, the first European to see the falls -- was an undeveloped nook in a country that had abandoned communism a decade before.
Then Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms, triggering the collapse of Zimbabwe's agricultural economy and widespread international condemnation. The years since have been marked by disputed elections marred by violence and repression, inflation that has skyrocketed past 231 million percent and shortages of food and currency.
Now Zimbabwe, a former tourism mecca, is the subject of many Western nations' travel warnings. Tourism revenue dropped from $777 million in 1999 to $26 million in 2008, according to figures from Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank, which are considered the most reliable. The World Economic Forum, relying on sunnier data from the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, predicts the industry will contract more than 1 percent annually for the next decade.
"The tourism sector has suffered because of the bad publicity we have received from our enemies," said Karikoga Kaseke, chief executive of the tourism authority, referring to the Western nations that Mugabe's government blames for its problems.
Whatever the reason, Zambia saw an opening and began marketing its side of the falls, sometimes as "Victoria Falls Livingstone." Big hotel chains arrived, and risk-averse corporations moved conferences there. National tourism revenue doubled to $176 million from 1999 to 2006, according to government statistics. The Livingstone Tourism Association says the number of hotel rooms in the town has swelled from 700 to about 1,900 in the past eight years.
"Initially, it was a negative for us," Tanya Stephens, a longtime Livingstone resident who manages the new Livingstone branch of the South African Protea Hotel chain, said of Zimbabwe's slide. "Then Zambia started to go out and say, 'You can still see Victoria Falls. You can come to Zambia, the safe side of the falls.' "
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.