By Charles Mafa

Livingstone is scrambling to have all promised facilities in place in time for the much – heralded general assembly of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), scheduled for August.

The conference which is being co-hosted by Zambia and Zimbabwe in both Livingstone and the town of Victoria Falls across the border is the principle gathering of the UNWTO, which meets every two years to consider its budget and programme.

Zambia and Zimbabwe won the right to co-host the event when delegates from across the world unanimously gave the two countries the nod during the 19th session of the General Assembly held in South Korea in 2011.

Government and the tourism industry are generally placing huge hopes on this assembly, believing that it would serve to promote Zambian tourism globally. If there is such a result it may come later simply because, as tourism expert Jo Pope points out, “the delegates who are coming are all bureaucrats”. They do not own or manage tourism businesses, nor are they tourists; their job is to carry out the UN’s role in the global tourism industry. In fact, it is unlikely that the conference itself will attract extra tourists to the region.

In that sense, any promotion of Zambia and Zimbabwe as desirable tourist destinations is likely to be a side issue of the assembly, although a useful one if it happens.

Vice president Dr. Guy Scott said Zambia issued a similar cautionary message when he told a business community meeting in Livingstone in February that UNWTO “may raise you more money in future as your reputation goes up”. He further cautioned that Zambia could find itself abandoned by tourists if it does a bad job on the preparations.

It seems old but it does appear that one seems to know how many delegates will be attending this meeting. Government sources say there will be about 4,000 delegates, but the people who run Livingstone's hotels are not at all clear how many bookings there will be. Jo Pope, believes the figure is likely to be in the region of 800 delegates, citing experience from previous gatherings.

Mrs Popr said that with the bed capacity of 8,500, the two towns had the ability to handle the event. But if 4,000 delegates were to come that would leave a capacity of just 4,500 beds to handle all other visitors to the Falls area - arguably the biggest tourist attraction in Africa after the Egyptian pyramids - at the height of the tourist season. It may be cutting it a bit fine.

Hotel and lodge operators have been enjoined to lower their rates during the four to five days of the UNWTO meeting. That does not make them happy. Tanya Stephens, general manager at Protea Hotel, Livingstone said operators were "not initially happy with the (reduction) but they considered the fact that the UNWTO is a big even that would put Zambian tourism on the world market".

She explained that rooms rates have been reduced by 50% from US$200 (KR1,078) to US$95 (KR512) for single while double rooms costing US$ 220 (1,186) have been put at US$150 (KR809) during the UNWT. This may have a negative impact on their businesses because normal taxes and tariffs have not been reduced by government, added Ms Stephens.

She said that the hotel is ready for the event and the Ministry of Tourism and Arts had already booked 60 rooms for the delegates who would be coming.

Daan Brink the managing director of Batoka Skies and Livingstone Adventures who is also part of the organising commtittee said it is important to focus on the positives of hosting the UNWTO.

"I see the UNWTO as a period when we have the opportunity to showcase what Livingstone in particular has to offer because this is where it will happen. I see a huge opportunity to showcase to the world what we do and how good we are on what we do," he said.

The Livingstone Tourism Association says the hotel and lodge owners are doing their best to make sure that their businesses are ready to host the visitors.

Active Monze, the chairperson said his association which represents some of the hotel and lodge owners is workign hard to ensure that there is no problem with the handling of the delegates.

"There are about 7 hotels that have been selected to host the whole event and then a few others that are being worked on right now to supplement up to 500 bed spaces," he said.

So how are preparations coming along? Depends on whom you talk to. The town centre market has been razed to make way for a new market, but at the time of writing, the only evidence of the new market was a barricade around the site of iron roofing sheets, and even that was said to be done as a result of President Michael Sata's impending visit to campaign for the PF candidate in the recent Livingstone by - election.

Shebby Mushabati, the chairperson who represents the interests of some 8,500 traders at the demolished market, said his members left the place in December to make way for the new market.

He said government had told them that the new market would be ready in a minimum of four months and a maximum five months. “We’re excited about the UNWTO because we will be in the modern market - except we don’t know how much those shops will cost but we have been told they will be very reasonable charges.”

Some of the market traders are not holding their breath with excitment. For example, 34 year - old Mubita Kwalela, a trader at Mukuni Curio Market does not see that the UNWTO will benefit people like him.

“I don’t think I am going to be a different person after the conference because the same business I am doing, you go to other hotels and lodges, and you are going to find these items. Even when they (delegates) come mainly they will support those people,” says Kwalela.

Mubita Kwalela’s market stall is crowded full of traditional African crafts and trinkets – the kind of produce sometimes described unkindly as “airport art”. What he offers is echoed by a dozen other traders working there - animal sculptures, bungles, cow-bone necklaces and wooden figurines.

Michael Mushaukwa, another trader at the same market says Livingstone city will benefit from new infrastructure such as roads and new markets, but for an artiste like him the organizers should set aside time for the delegates to visit the market. 

In January this year, Southern Province Minister, Josephine Limata criticized the Livingstone City Council for what she described as the slow pace at which it was implementing projects in preparation for the hosting of the UNWTO assembly.

The pace was “worrying”, she said, and she gave the council a two-month ultimatum to increase the pace and record tangible results.

Another criticism came from Dr. Francis Manda, a UTH consultant, said on ZNBC’s Manzi Therapy programme in February this year that the country was not ready for such an assembly because all preparatory works had been left to the Ministry of Tourism alone.

That prompted a sharp response from Amos Malupenga, permanent secretary in the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, who said: “If people at the level of Dr. Manda are not aware of what government has done in readiness for the conference, then I am worried for the common man.”

A new conference hall will not be built, according to a source involved in the preparations, and construction of a new inter – city bus terminus at Villa Grounds had not commenced as at the time of writing. A road heading to the terminus site had been graded but there was no sign of a contractor working at the site.

Another worry is hospital facilities. The intensive care unit at Livingstone General Hospital is being beefed up, but not much else is scheduled to improve services at a hospital already overstretched. And work on rehabilitating Mosi-O-Tunya Road – nicknamed “bubble gum road” because of previous poor workmanship – has not yet started.

The Livingstone City Council insists, however, that the works are on course and will be ready before the conference. Public relations manager, Emmanuel Sikanyika said they are buoyed by government’s commitment to release the funds on time – and his optimism is echoed by Tourism and Arts minister, Sylvia Masebo who said: “My government is ready and has set aside sufficient budgetary allocations for logistical and event management of this prestigious 20th session of the general assembly,” she said.

Mr. Sikanyika said government had so far released KR118 million for the road works, KR28.5 million for the new market, KR45 million for a new bus station, over KR600 for drainage works and more than KR1 million for the ablution facilities in town.

He believes that what he called the long tender process of finding contractors to work on the projects is what “should have made the public think that things were being delayed”.

The effects of the delay - or non delay - are visible on the streets of Livingstone as some people who occupied the demolition market have found a home there. In some parts of the street it is practically impossible to walk without bumping into the merchandise presumably waiting for its new home.

Some Livingstone residents worry that Livingstone might fare badly when compared with Victoria Falls town on the south side of the Zambezi. That town was built, they say, specifically for tourism: it is within walking distance of the Falls, unlike Livingstone, which is 10 kilometres away, and before Zimbabwe collapsed it was almost the major tourist town in this part of the world, distributing tourists to all regional destinations, and doing it skillfully. Victoria Falls is home to some wonderful hotels, including the famous Victoria Falls Hotel, and the wildlife environment has been one of the best in Africa. Now the town is coming to life again; hotels are being refurbished and new restaurants and other services are opening up.

Livingstone, which was once the capital of Northern Rhodesia, is described by some residents as a failed industrial town that is trying to present itself as a tourism capital. However, it does have history on its side. There are some wonderful old buildings and attractions - the rail museum, the Livingstone museum being lovingly restored among them, and some clever modern adventure activities. But unfortunately over the years the "old" attractions, which could have been invaluable at adding flavour and charisma to the town, have been allowed to deteriorate and the town is now scruffy and unwelcoming to modern tourists.

The UNWTO conference could be the catalyst to change Livingstone into a tourist capital worthy the title.

The Bulletin and Record, April 2013 edition