Work on refurbishment of Victoria Falls International Airport is almost complete and the project is expected to be a game changer in as far as tourism in Zimbabwe and the whole African region is concerned.According to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAAZ) the airport is expected to be complete by year end. But the country needs to strategically market Victoria Falls as a destination if we are to realise gains from this $150 million project.
During times like these when the world has become more of a global village, air transport is fast proving to be a vital cog in the development of any economy hence the ‘open skies policy’ mantra reaching fever pitch at every government economic recovery strategy forum.
And with the coming in of the state-of-the-art Victoria Falls International Airport with a 4 km runway capable of accommodating the biggest passenger planes including the A380, a new control tower, a modern car park area for over 400 vehicles, Zimbabwean skies will soon be abuzz with metal birds criss crossing our horizons.
The airport, which is going through a $150 million face-lift will also be capable of accommodating long haul, wide bodied jets. And soon, most travellers will lose patience with the long and arduous journeys by road and will choose to fly.
So, this world class tourist attraction called Victoria Falls that was described by colonial explorer, David Livingstone as, “So beautiful that even Angels on their flight to heaven should have stopped and gazed” is now within touching distance.
But how do we unlock value out of this new state-of-the-art airport?
Minister of Tourism and Hospitality Industry Walter Mzembi is on record emphasising the need to open our skies and even President Robert Mugabe in his recent State of the Nation Address noted that:
“Current interventions on marketing, relaxing the visa regime, investment in tourism and other related infrastructure, and the promotion of the Open Skies Policy should see the (tourism) sector making further growth.”
But is this enough if the country is to realise more value from the air transport?
We also need to increase activities in Victoria Falls and again government is on point when they announced early this year that the town is targeted as a special economic zone.
According to an Oxford Management Policy Development economist, Lee Conway, challenges facing the African aviation industry range from strong state protectionism, lack of an enabling environment for new investors, high taxes and charges (above comparative world averages), a poor safety record due to ageing fleet and insufficient regulatory supervision.
He further states that a lot of air transport infrastructure across the continent is in need of upgrade.
So, Zimbabwe is in the right direction, addressing these challenges being enumerated by Conway so the refurbishment of Victoria Falls International Airport is one step in the positive direction.
“Another key problem (facing African airlines) is a lack of competition, which contributes to high fares. Although in some cases low passenger volumes may create natural monopolies, in many countries competition is artificially restricted by making it difficult for foreign airlines to access certain routes, in order for governments to support their own national carriers,” argued Conway.
But this then defeats the dictates of an agreement signed by over 14 countries more than 13 years ago to “open the skies” under the Yamoussoukro Decision of 1999 and as a country and with our open skies policy we can’t afford making it difficult for foreign airlines to ply our skies. Instead we need foreign airlines to jam our skies.
So as a country, as we abide by this Yamoussoukro Decision, we must tread carefully and see how best we can benefit from the open skies policy.
In the past there have been countries feverishly advertising the Victoria Falls as their own, inviting tourists to their countries, flying them there and back in a single day with Zimbabwe benefiting little or nothing out of the arrangement.
With the opening of this modern airport, these countries might even up their game much to our disadvantage instead of gains and we need to carve out a protectionist strategy.