Kudzanai Gerede Business Correspondent
Hoteliers in Manicaland’s major tourist destinations of Mutare, Vumba and Nyanga suffered significant declines in hotel room occupancy during first quarter (Q1) 2016 compared to the same period last year as the turbulent macro-economic environment continues to subdue tourist spending on accommodation, latest statistics from Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) revealed.
Mutare and Vumba hotels whose combined room capacity is at 537 were 31 percent utilised during first 3 months of 2016 reflecting a minus seven percent growth from 38 percent utilisation same period in 2015. Nyanga hotels also recorded a negative occupancy growth rate of minus two percent this year from 32 percent last year down to 30 percent same period 2016.
Despite the national average hotel room occupancy rate decreasing from 38 percent in the period January to March 2015 to 36 percent in Q1 2016, more worrying was the poor performance by Eastern Highlands destinations (minus seven percent for Mutare and Vumba) which was below the national average of minus two percent, the second worst after Kariba’s minus 19 percent slump.
The Eastern Highlands, with proper marketing and infrastructure investment in place, is a key strategic tourist hotspot with a capacity to generate over half a billion dollars annually in receipts, according to Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister Walter Mzembi,.
The eastern region is also expected to spur the envisioned national US$ 5 billion tourism economy by 2020.
Statistics show that Eastern Highlands hoteliers generate the bulk of their revenue receipts from the domestic market and the cash shortages which started to fluctuate as early as last October and worsened beginning of this year, crippled the domestic market’s capacity to spend on travelling accommodation resulting in low turnout at major hotels.
Local tourist bookings at Nyanga hotels decreased from 96 percent to 82 percent while those spending a night in Mutare and Vumba hotels decreased from 91 percent to 88 percent.
However analysts say the slowdown in Manicaland tourism is not all doom but attests to the resilience by the hospitality players in the province given the harsh economic realities currently threatening viability as most hotels have come up with innovative and attractive accommodation packages to stir business.
Firstly, the province is grappling with the challenge of accessibility of its major attractions with the international market owing to dilapidated road network infrastructure which tends to deter visitors from traversing further into the interior.
This has been compounded by the absence of direct airline connectivity into the Eastern Highlands.
This has culminated in Manicaland hoteliers having to rely heavily on domestic tourists for survival. However, their capacity to spend has been massively compromised owing to a deteriorating economic environment.
Manicaland, besides being endowed with appealing scenic landscapes, has not effectively managed to monetised its natural advantage owing to lack of adequate investment in tourism infrastructure such as roads and an airport, as well as intensive marketing at a global stage. This is so considering its massive potential that can turn around the fortunes of the entire sector especially at a time when major attractions like Victoria Falls are getting favourable marketing even from neighbouring South Africa, including Government’s recent completion of the new Victoria Falls International Airport for better connectivity with global travellers.
This has consequently made Victoria Falls the only tourist destination in the country boasting of having its largest source market originating outside Africa (USA) while the Eastern Highlands with an equally appealing aura still relying on a modest travelling markets like South Africa as its major source market.
“Inaccessibility to our destination remains a very critical challenge with the potential to cripple tourism in the Eastern Highlands to its knees. Victoria Falls now has a world class international airport which makes it easy to connect with a huge international travelling market,” Eastern Highlands Experience chairman Mr Chatigu Kwa yedza told Post Business.
“We rely heavily on the South African market here in the Eastern Highlands for our international tourism and the road connecting Beitbridge past Masvingo into Beichnoughbridge to Mutare is very bad. Imagine driving through that bad route one is tempted not to drive further to areas like Nyanga upon reaching Mutare because of the conditions of our road network,” he added.
Contrary to suggestions that the province was lacking innovation to attract investment and lure more tourists into the Eastern Highlands, Mr Kwa yedza said hospitality players in the province were even more innovative than their counterparts in Victoria Falls and noted that the province had a wide and diverse tourism package to offer despite the macro-economic challenges curtailing efforts to spur tourism growth.
“For investment to come, there has to be guarantee for returns. We have macro-economic factors beyond our control which need to be addressed at a national level but locally we are resilient. Our packages are more creative and innovative even better than the Victoria Falls. We are diverse because we have the likes of Nyanga, Vumba and Chipinge all having different tastes which a tourist can easily choose from but we haven’t been supported enough to be acknowledged outside our borders like Victoria Falls,” he said.
His assertion also finds validity at national level where the lucrative tourism sector has not been adequately funded by Treasury to cater for its domestic and international tourism campaigns which are critical in marketing the country’s diverse tourist package.
Regional competitors like South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana and Zambia have marketed the Victoria Falls as an extra package to their destinations.
The latest figures released recently by ZTA however show that despite a two percent drop in hotel room occupancy rate across the entire country, the sector has actually recorded a 16 percent growth in tourism arrivals from 387 557 in the first quarter last year to 450 572 during the same period this year.
Analysts have called on the Government and the hospitality sector to improve the local tourist destination by ensuring that it becomes competitive against attractive packages offered by regional competitors like South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia who have managed to “steal” the Victoria Falls from Zimbabwe.
The ZTA in its latest results noted that tourists were shunning Zimbabwe’s costly hotels in Victoria Falls by booking in Livingstone, Zambia then cross over to Zimbabwe for an excursion during the day where the country has a scenic vantage point of the falls compared to its northern neighbour only to return to Zambia for the night.
Analysts attribute this disparity between rising tourist arrivals and declining hotel room occupancy levels to high cost structures in the domestic economy.
“We noticed a minus two percent drop in room occupancy while the arrivals grew by 16 percent because of high figures of tourists in transit from countries such as Malawi and Zambia heading to South Africa,” Zimbabwe Tourism Council (ZTC) president Mr Francis Ngwenya told Post Business.
Of a total of 63 039 visitors from Zambia, 39 895 were merely passing through Zimbabwe mainly into South Africa and of the total 94 537 from Malawi into Zimbabwe 76 219 were in transit again.
“Most of the tourists in transit do not spend money in the domestic market so they are of less value to the local industry. This is largely because we are using a hard currency while the exchange rate has been rising against the South African rand which has most of our visitors therefore rendering our destination too expensive,” he added.
Mr Ngwenya said the country has to make sure that it reduces its cost structures across all the facets of the economy ranging from fuel prices, food prices and utilities in order for the hospitality players to offer cheaper competitive prices for accommodation.
He said ZTC had engaged Government to reduce the 15 percent tax on foreigner’s accommodation which was also leading to the higher cost for the ultimate price for foreigners’ accommodation in the country.
“In South Africa they have also pegged the foreigner’s accommodation tax at 15 percent and 14 percent in Zambia but then we have to understand that they have done so basing on their weaker currencies, the Rand and Kwacha respectively not with a hard currency as strong as the US dollar. Countries using hard currencies tax single digit figures. For instance, in Europe they have an average of 5 percent tax imposed. So we urge the Government to lower the 15 percent tax on foreigners’ accommodation,” said Mr Ngwenya.