By Sijabuliso Ndhlovu
A few years ago, no one ever imagined Victoria Falls International Airport attracting reputable international airlines. It was a simple airport that serviced flights from Harare, Johannesburg and Windhoek. It only landed a Boeing 737 or equivalent and was quiet for most of the day. So, when the expansion project kicked off in May 2013, the general feeling was that the new infrastructure will become a white elephant for many reasons. Those that are experts in the aviation sector gave many reasons for that and highlighted that as long as the factors they addressed had not been attended to then the airport will hardly have any new airlines.
So the expansion project went on and in November 2015, the new international terminal was operationalised. Soon the refurbishment at the domestic terminal was completed and just before President Robert Mugabe commissioned the new structure in December last year, the African Airlines Association Annual Congress was held in Victoria Falls. During this congress delegates were given the opportunity to tour the new facility.
It is during that congress that Ethiopian Airlines announced its intention to introduce a direct fight from Addis Ababa to Victoria Falls on the 26th of March. This service extends to Gaborone, Botswana. This will make Victoria Falls directly accessible from that city through the fifth freedom rights arrangement. A local, low cost airline Rainbow Airlines took to the skies in January and joined Air Zimbabwe and Fast Jet on the Harare-Victoria Falls route. Early this year, another reputable airline, Kenya Airways announced that it will be introducing a direct flight from Nairobi to Victoria Falls and this came to fruition on the 1st of May. The service extends to Cape Town through similar arrangements as in Ethiopian Airlines. In another turn of events, South African Airways launched the Airbus A330-200 on the Johannesburg-Victoria Falls route with effect from the 1st of March. This is a 222-seater aircraft that the airline is using on its international, long haul flights.
This obviously created a lot of excitement in the tourism sector, but another slice of the cake is on the way. Barely a fortnight after the launch of the Airbus A330-200, South African Airlink announced that it will introduce a daily flight between Cape Town and Victoria Falls with effect from the 2nd of July, (excluding Saturdays). Together these new services mean that the resort town of Victoria Falls will now be accessible from four additional cities within six months after it was commissioned. This is an addition to the Johannesburg and Windhoek services. It also means that Victoria Falls is accessible through all the major airline networks, Star Alliance, Sky-Team and One World. This is a good move for the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ) considering that during the commissioning, President Mugabe emphasized that the airport should not be left to become a white elephant.
This is extremely important because accessibility is the most important factor for any tourist destination especially considering that not everyone wants to travel through Oliver Rambo International Airport. The impact of this development is that these new airlines combined are adding more than 80 000 seats to Victoria Falls. The downstream benefit is that hotels and lodges will improve their room occupancy and bookings for various activities will be higher. This is a milestone achievement considering that the average room occupancy for the year 2016 was at 48 percent. Already room occupancy began rising even during the traditionally low season and the immediate benefits for the local community is the demand for new and additional employees. This is a signal that there is a greater potential in Victoria Falls and the joint marketing strategy between the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA), CAAZ and private players is now beginning to bear fruit. It is also interesting that tour operators acknowledge that the responsibility of marketing the country cannot be left to the ZTA alone. Already the ZTA has been working with Kenya Airways and the Kenya Tourism Board to jointly market the destination in common markets.
ZIM ASSET is taking shape in the infrastructure and utilities cluster. The development of new infrastructure and upgrading the existing ones can make a huge difference in the tourism sector. In fact infrastructure development is one of the major enablers in the tourism industry. With this kind of development, Victoria Falls International Airport can now compete with other competing international airports within a radius of 100 kilometres. As the country approaches the peak season in the sector, more conferences and events are going to be taking place. This means Victoria Falls is coming alive again. Already the room occupancy is at 58 percent in the hospitality sector and with the peak season coming, the sector should expect this figure to increase significantly. With the rate at which airlines have responded, there is hope that bigger airlines that have indicated their interest to fly to Victoria Falls like Lufthansa and Emirates might commence direct international air services soon. This would mean that Victoria Falls can be accessed directly from Europe and United Arab Emirates.
Making use of the social media platforms is doing wonders for many organisations beyond our borders and it is pleasing that Zimbabwe as a country has not been left behind. Many local organisations are making use of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, to mention but a few. The advantage with social media platforms is that the message reaches out to many people quickly at a very low cost.
Perhaps this is the beginning of the good times for the sector. What is now required is to keep the spirit of togetherness to attract more arrivals. So far the arrivals are yet to reach the capacity of the old airport of 500 000 per annum, meaning the country still has a long way to go before achieving 100 percent capacity utilisation of the airport. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel and with confidence one can surely say Victoria Falls International Airport is the “Game Changer” in the tourism sector.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.