Tourism Development in Zambia Through the 7th NDP

My kind editor sent me the Seventh National Development Plan (NDP) during the week, and asked for my thoughts.  So we come back from the mountains of Tibet with a bump to look at where the government sees tourism going over the next 5 years.

The 7th NDP includes tourism as a key driver for “a diversified and resilient economy for sustained growth and socio-economic transformation…”.  Tourism can create sustainable jobs and conserve environments and wildlife and is crucial to Zambia maintaining its natural resources.  But in order to understand how this industry can be developed we need to take a deeper look at where we are now.

The 7th NDP uses international arrival statistics as a key measure of performance,citing international tourism arrivals at 931,782 in 2015, an increase of 39%from the previous decade.  It also states hat 79% of the tourism market is from African countries.  Come with me now to Livingstone airport on any day of the week and watch the international arrivals come in.  Are we saying that these tourists are from Africa because their flight came from Johannesburg or Nelspruit?  Because certainly the vast majority of arrivals that you see there are not African. If 79% of visitors are African, are we sure they are there for tourism,or is it another reason?  Are we interrogating these statistics properly? All I can say is that the vast majority of my clients are not African.  Are we noting that there are buses from a Zimbabwean tour operator waiting to take large numbers of visitors across theborder without spending a cent in Zambia apart from their visa fees?  Many long timers in tourism have questioned the validity of arrival statistics as an accurate measure of the health of the industry and for good reasons.

The Ministry ofTourism collects data on occupancy statistics by nationality from every hoteland lodge in Zambia.  These figures wouldbe a good starting point and is the first point of analysis for my own business.  I know where my clients come from, how longthey stay and how much they spend on other tourism products.  You could also then analyse what type ofaccommodation establishment appeals to which markets, enabling the ZambiaTourism Authority to consider more targeted marketing strategies.  Where are most of the backpackers from?  How long do they stay in Zambia?  Which nationalities prefer the luxurylodges?  Where are the self-drivers from?Etc etc etc.  This analysis might have beendone, but it is not reflected here.

The 7th NDP also states that “The natural beauty makes tourism unique.”  Well, yes and no.  Undoubtedly there is abundant natural beauty in Zambia, but I suspect every other tourism destination in the world could say the same.  While we know our product is wonderful, we are competing in a global market and we have to really interrogate who are our target markets and what drives their buying decisions so we can understand how to sell it most effectively. In 2013 Zambia welcomed 1.63% of Africa’s 55.8 million tourist arrivals.  This is surely a figure we must strive to improve.

Eastern, Luapula, Muchinga, Northern, Southern and Western provinces are all mentioned as having potential for tourism growth.  There is recognition that much of this potential development depends on improving infrastructure, up-skilling labour and conserving our product. Most of our tourism is based on natural beauty and wildlife.  Conserving this natural beauty by careful,planned and environmentally sustainable development is key.  Conserving our wildlife is fundamentally important and there is an inherent conflict between development (habit encroachment in particular) and sustaining wildlife.  Wildlife tourism will not exist without wildlife.  The type of investors and development is incredibly important – how these organisations engage with their staff and local communities, their customers and what products they offer can be critical in ensuring the survival or our wildlife resource, or its destruction.  This is a topic for a different (perhaps several) article in the future.

Another key driver is promoting domestic tourism.  I completely agree with the policy, but let’s think about implementation.  Some years ago I attended a meeting of the Zambia Tourism Board (pre-cursor to ZTA) where they previewed a video,presumably to be used as a television advert to promote domestic tourism.  I don’t watch television so I don’t know if it ever aired, but it was dreadful.  The scenario was a husband and wife arguing over whether it was too expensive to goon holiday.  The wife disagreed with the husband so he threatened to beat her.  Think about it, dear reader.  Someone using our tax-payers’ hard earned money, thought that it was a good idea to use domestic violence to promote domestic tourism.

The 7th NDP wants to implement a two-tier pricing system to encourage domestic tourism.  There are a number of very significant problems with this.  There is not a two-tier cost system, so how can there be a two-tier pricing system?  Secondly, we risk alienating and offending a significant proportion of our visitors by blatantly charging more for international visitors.  Not all international tourists are the rich and even if they are they may resent being required topay more.  Many visitors save for several years to fulfil a lifelong dream to come here.  Their money is just as hard earned as any oneelse’s.  I visited the Mosi O Tunya National Park 2 weeks ago.  Despite the fact that I am a Zambian resident, earning a Zambian wage, and am a Zambian taxpayer, I was charged as a foreigner.  So tell me who is a domestic tourist for these purposes?  Am I supposed to give reduced rates to diplomats and foreign workers earning large tax free salaries in Forex because they have permits?  This strategy is fraught with danger and discrimination bias.

As a hotel owner, I think that tourism is already being squeezed extremely hard.  Which other industry is compelled by law to give 10% of their takings to their staff? Which other industry is to be forced/compelled/persuaded to have atwo-tier pricing system?  We now have the new Tourism Levy which is also unique to the industry, as well as all the other standard commercial taxes.  In addition,most bookings come from travel agents – both real and online, and anything from 10 – 25% of the hotel’s headline rates is paid in commissions.  The 7th NDP notes that tourism received negligible foreign direct investment over the last decade.  If there is any chance of attracting investors into the industry it is vital that a long hard look is taken at the real economics of running a tourism business. And not just the big luxurious hotels, but the small ones as well.  My suspicion is that it will not be as the policy makers expect.

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