Victoria Falls: Zimbabwe vaccinates entire resort town to welcome foreign guests

Victoria Falls, locally known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means “the smoke that thunders” is at its peak, but only a few can witness this magnificent cascading waterfall straddling Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, more than 350,000 people each year trekked to the Zimbabwean side of the waterfall to see one of the world’s natural wonders. But since then, there have been hardly any visitors.

Now, hopes are high that a vaccine rollout could bring back much-needed tourism in the resort town.

Zimbabwe recorded its first coronavirus case a year ago, a resident of Victoria Falls. Although patient zero recovered, the country has registered more than 1,500 COVID-19-related deaths and nearly 37,000 infections since last March.

With a strict national lockdown enforced, tourist activities in the resort town, as in many other places across the country, were shut down for months on end. However, the advent of the country’s vaccination drive using Chinese jabs means that restrictions have since eased.

Launched on February 18, the first phase of the campaign targeted some 60,000 healthcare and other front-line workers. Of them, however, only 44,000 have been inoculated so far.

Last week, President Emmerson Mnangagwa took his first shot of the Sinovac vaccine to launch the second phase of the vaccination programme that is intended for the elderly, teachers, religious leaders, people with critical illnesses – and all adult residents of Victoria Falls, a city of some 110,000 people.

In a symbolic move aimed at promoting tourism recovery, Mnangagwa travelled to Victoria Falls to get his shot on Wednesday.

Since then, residents of the tourism-dependent town have been forming snaking queues outside public hospitals and clinics, waiting for their turn to get their first dose of the vaccine.

Vaccination is voluntary, but for some people, it is a requirement to return to work.

With the programme seemingly moving forward at full speed and international flights slowly resuming, Victoria Falls is preparing to welcome foreign visitors again – even as the land borders to Botswana and Zambia remain closed to public transport.

However, some have said Zimbabwe’s tourism and hospitality industry needs more than a vaccination drive to get back on track.

Earlier this month, the government announced a $5.8m scheme that will see the government provide a 50 percent loan guarantee for businesses in the tourism sector. The move met criticism by opposition figures, who described it as risky and cautioned that struggling taxpayers could be forced to foot the bill if the companies defaulted.

Others, however, said the loan facility should be extended to cover all businesses in hospitality.

According to the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA), tourism contributed 7.2 percent and 6.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2018 and 2019, respectively. But with business slowing down last year, Zimbabwe’s tourism sector is estimated to have lost at least $1bn in potential revenue, the ZTA said.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has added another dimension to Zimbabwe’s economic crisis which has seen its local currency rapidly devaluing and the US dollar and South African rand operating as de facto currencies.

Intermittent shortages of cash and other basic commodities such as fuel have been constant indicators of a crippled economy whose dire state has been exacerbated by COVID-19, inflation and drought.