The period 20th to 24th August is a window of opportunity difficult to ignore. Zambia and Zimbabwe took centre stage, attracting all the local and international publicity that accompanies high profile events, in this case the 20th General Assembly of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
The two neighbours stepped up their preparations and visibility in the run-up to the Assembly. All resources and support possible were likely provided for the hosting of the event.
Zambian Tourism and Arts Minister Sylvia Masebo, together with her Zimbabwean counterpart Walter Mzembi became constant fixtures and images of the conference. Their commitment certainly cannot be faulted.
With the successful hosting and close however comes the bigger and most important part. The postmortem. A global event such as this must call for a comprehensive analysis of successes, opportunities and misses. This must be a springboard for future ambitions, milestones and successes.
The zeal, resource allocation, clean up and work ethic exhibited and witnessed in Livingstone must not end with the General Assembly. The planning starts and continues from here with even more vigour. What with the clear intent signaled by both host nations’ heads of state. Presidents Sata and Mugabe both agree tourism is a strategic and cardinal sector that can contribute to economic development.
But it must not end at the intent. The hosting privilege has shown just what we are capable of with a bit more will and focus.
So what next?
The spotlight was unmistakably on Livingstone, showcasing the Victoria falls, our cultural dimension and various activities one can embark on. So many prominent people lunged in for a taste of the tourist capital. We saw coverage of the Vice President, first and second ladies, ministers and their spouses among others.
Indeed as far as coverage is concerned, the steering committee and planning teams can only be commended.
Beyond that however lies my source of concern. Silence and the status quo may well be the next phase. That is not what Livingstone needs. The prominence and visibility must continue. Especially now with the media and international attention that the General Assembly provided.
That calls for a well thought out, integrated and trackable blueprint. Without such focus, we will once again have to cope with the shoddiness that the tourist capital does not need.
We do not have to go back to littered streets, vendor chocked corridors or disorganisation that leaves us shy of international standards.
If we allow Livingstone to recline into such escapable mediocrity, Zambia will not benefit from our God endowed wealth. Other countries instead will.
Zimbabwe has for a long time enjoyed the benefits of the Falls more than Zambia has. Perhaps the political woes of the last few years have mellowed the Zimbabwean advantage. Whether Zambia has exploited that opportunity is a subject for wide debate.
South Africa is another such country that in most instances has packaged Victoria falls more effectively than Zambia. There have been known hotels that offer chopper rides to Livingstone as though the falls were in South Africa.
Such instances inevitably point to the need for Zambia not to relent but instead sustain the momentum gained this year. That calls for coordinated and aggressive plans to derive economic benefits from a sector as strategic as tourism.
Where do we start?
The fact that we need a plan cannot be disputed. And a part of this plan must undoubtedly incorporate infrastructure and something that may not be quantifiable but is critical-ambition.
Over a year ago, I visited Livingstone while two professional bodies were in town for their Annual General Meetings. The Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) and Zambia Institute of Chartered Accountants (ZICA) flooded the tourist capital. The marked but not unexpected result was that accommodation was a nightmare. Rooms were simply in short supply.
If we are to enhance Livingstone’s standing as a tourist attraction, bed space and quality accommodation must be prioritised. The town must be able to host multiple events without a strain. It must also be able to embrace a flood of tourists, both local and foreign without labouring to accommodate them.
This too would form part of the national employment plan. Locals must have a piece of this cake as lodge or hotel owners. Also have the opportunity as entrepreneurs providing exciting activities that draw visitors and of course much needed revenue.
If well executed and supported, even souvenir sellers would not end up in the dilemma cited after the UNWTO assembly. A situation that saw some of them borrow from various sources in anticipation of huge sales. That was not to be and how many have been left financially crippled can only be speculated.
Ambition and political will
These twin factors are often overlooked. But their importance cannot be ignored without significant cost.
In this fast paced and competitive era, it does matter what we strive for and how hungry we must be to achieve.
I always think of Dubai and some of the projects it has embarked on over the years. Through ambition and wealth of course, the city has attracted world attention through many innovative large construction projects and is symbolic for its skyscrapers and high-rise buildings, such as the world’s tallest Burj Khalifa. Other ambitious development projects include man-made islands, hotels, and some of the largest shopping malls in the world.
To a large extent, this is tourism created out of rich resources. Zambia, on the other hand boasts natural resources she can exploit with shrewd and innovative thinking.
I have often heard comments that Dubai has achieved all this because it is oil rich. My immediate thought and reaction always takes me to the “Formula 1” roads that were constructed in the run up to Zambia’s 2011 presidential by-election.
Roads surfaced where they previously did not exist or had slipped into dilapidation. All this in a country where resources have seemingly been in short supply for priority areas and projects.
It can be done. What remains imperative is the drive to set off on such a path. That is the part where political will has a huge part to play.
More action beyond words
Zambia must now position itself for tourism success. This is a sector that must contribute more substantially than it currently does.
A sustained global and local marketing campaign is a must. We have had visits from top entertainment and global personalities in Livingstone. That in itself is an endorsing statement and an opportunity to showcase what is on offer.
The supporting infrastructure built such as the Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport is only the first step. More is now required.
Livingstone must become a sought after conference hub regionally and internationally. The Victoria Falls must be only one of the attractions to enrich the package and woo tourists.
Even the Mosi-o-tunya national park can be restocked to accommodate more animals that can thrive in that habitat. That would make the safari drives more rewarding than they may presently be.
Livingstone specifically and Zambia broadly is not limited to what exists. There remains a lot that can be done to turn our tourism into a money spinner.
It is likely to be a long demanding journey. But it must start somewhere.
The time for that start is now. Hosting the UNWTO general assembly has shown us that.