The most remarkable thing about the Victoria Falls is not the falls itself although that is impressive enough. It is the way that tourism at Victoria Falls has been kept alive and thriving by resourceful and energetic tourism professionals who, as a matter of survival, have had to pretend that Zimbabwe is a neighbouring country.
The most remarkable thing about the Victoria Falls is not the falls itself – although that is impressive enough. It is the way that tourism at Victoria Falls has been kept alive and thriving by resourceful and energetic tourism professionals who, as a matter of survival, have had to pretend that Zimbabwe is a neighbouring country. For the last decade, concerned tourists have wondered whether they should visit Zimbabwe in case their tourism dollars were being used to prop up Mugabe. Tourism professionals at Victoria Falls have argued that tourism income benefits local people and cushions them from the fall-out of the country’s disastrous economic policies. Tourism seems to be winning the argument.
It is tragic that the Victoria Falls should even be the subject of this debate. The Falls are one of those must-see-before-I-die experiences. The Zambezi River is already an impressive sight as it wends its pancake-flat way across the continent of Africa. But nature had prepared a few pitfalls for this river – a series of cracks in the basalt shield that covers most of the African plateau. These were scooped out by huge volumes of water for millions of years, resulting in a spectacular mile-wide series of falls and gorges and cliffs and rainforest. The magic lies in the very unexpectedness. Victoria Falls is a World Heritage Site, it is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it is the single largest curtain of water in the world.
Since the completion of the iron Victoria Falls Bridge in 1905 (designed specifically at the request of Cecil John Rhodes to be wetted by the spray from the waterfall), the area was developed for tourism. But it has successfully avoided the excesses that have marred similar scenic tourist attractions elsewhere in the world. The only sign of human intervention is the network of paths and viewpoints on the lip of the gorge opposite the falls, mostly hidden anyway by the rain forest. It is not a true rain forest, by the way, it is just an ordinary riverine forest that can’t believe its luck. Apart from ordinary ebony, fig and mahogany trees there are a few endemic species, and the area is home to many spectacular raptors.
An entire industry of adventure tourism has grown up around the Falls. Visitors can choose from helicopter rides, floatplanes (an open-sided flying boat that is unique to Vic Falls), jet boats, white-water rafting, a tour of the bridge, a 111-metre high bungee jump, high-water swings, river cruises, elephant-back trails, a flight in a Tiger Moth …. The list is a testimony to the tenaciousness of the tourism industry. There is even a Big Five game reserve, restocked with animals that were shot out 20 years ago.
So the region of Vic Falls has pulled off quite a coup – in the centre of an unstable and unhappy country it has managed to keep its local economy going, with a microcosm of friendly and safe activities. Talking to tourism professionals is to witness an egg-dance of diplomacy. They talk about ‘political challenges’ and ‘government issues’. It makes you wonder if it would be a crime to call Zimbabwe a failed state.
Most travel writers express the exact sense of dilemma that most potential tourists face when considering a trip to Vic Falls. “The Falls itself is wonderful, an awesome force of nature,” says one. A Zimbabwean says: “You’ve come to a country with constant power cuts, and which can’t feed water to its own people. Yet look. We have so much.”
But if Zimbabwe’s tourism industry will be revived, it is going to be revived at Victoria Falls.