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In this photo from June 2018, a man stands beside the Rovos Rail, stationed in the town of Gwanda, Zimbabwe. The luxury train service operates a route between Pretoria, South Africa, and Victoria Falls. The coronavirus pandemic, which closed borders and grounded international flights, is threatening to bring Zimbabwe’s once-thriving tourism industry to a halt. Vimbai Chinembiri, GPJ Zimbabwe
Coronavirus

Coronavirus Dismantles Tourism, One of Zimbabwe’s Biggest Economic Drivers

Zimbabwe

Throughout the chaotic ups and downs of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, tourism remained a reliable source of income, as foreign tourists flocked to the country’s natural wonders. Now, the coronavirus pandemic threatens to topple another pillar of the national economy.

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — On a normal day at Victoria Falls, hundreds of tourists watch as water from the Zambezi River cascades 108 meters (355 feet). The mist and loud crashing give the falls its local name, Mosi-oa-Tunya, a Lozi-language phrase meaning “the smoke that thunders.”

Located on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, Victoria Falls is one of the largest waterfalls in the world. As one of the country’s most popular tourist sites, it attracts approximately 340,000 visitors to Zimbabwe annually.

But with the threat of the coronavirus, it is not business as usual at Victoria Falls. With borders closed and international flights grounded, visitors to the falls and across Zimbabwe have disappeared. Without them, tourism, one of the country’s main economic drivers, has slowed to a trickle.

Itela Sakanji, director of Africa Guide Travel and Tours in Victoria Falls, says this is the worst he’s seen in his 10 years in business.

“We just come to sit at work, but we have nothing to do,” says Sakanji.

Zimbabwe has 24 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and three deaths as of April 18. The Zimbabwean government instituted a nationwide lockdown on March 30, restricting movement except for essential trips and services. The borders have also been closed for all except returning residents.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Zimbabwe was already deep in an economic crisis, thanks to runaway inflation, mass unemployment and a drought that crippled the agriculture industry. But tourism was still a bright spot in the economy.

We just come to sit at work, but we have nothing to do.

According to the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, 2.5 million tourists generated an estimated $1 billion in revenue in 2018. While tourism dropped by 11% in 2019, the country remained one of the top tourist destinations in Africa, attracting visitors from all over the world.

Many of them were Sakanji’s customers. In the peak period of March and April he would earn up to $2,000 a month. In the slower months he would earn as little as $500. But now, thanks to cancellations due to the coronavirus, his income has dropped to nothing.

“We have no clients coming in, and we have no source of income,” says Sakanji.

Victoria Falls is not the only tourist destination in Zimbabwe that has been affected. Across the country, tourism businesses are seeing cancellations and vanishing customers. Daniel Madamombe, the owner of Dynaly Travel and Tours, is based in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital and largest city. He says without customers he is surviving on past profits. But he is worried about what will happen when his savings run out.

“It’s worrisome because flights have been canceled, movement has been restricted. We don’t know what tomorrow holds,” he says.

The global impact of the coronavirus has hit Zimbabwean tourism especially hard.

About 90% of tourists who visit Zimbabwe come from overseas, mostly Europe and the United States, says Tinashe Farawo, spokesperson for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, the government agency that manages the country’s national parks, including Victoria Falls.

“With the threat of the virus, these (tourists) have stopped coming, and this has affected the visits to Victoria Falls and other tourist destination sites in Zimbabwe,” he says.

The extent of the pandemic’s effect on tourism in Zimbabwe is not yet known. The ZTA and ZPWMA tell Global Press Journal that they are still compiling data to measure the impact.

For Sakanji, the repercussions are already being felt. Without income from tourists to pay rent or salaries, he is worried he will have to close his business.

“As it stands,” he says, “my business might be affected to an extent that I may not be able to recover after the coronavirus.”

Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.