HARARE from Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls are usually teeming with tourists who come to marvel at the roar of the Zambezi River as it tumbles over 108 meters to the gorge below, sending a mist visible for miles.
“The roaring smoke” – the English translation of what the waterfall is called in the Sotho language – is still powerful, but the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced visitors to a trickle. Usually, Victoria Falls attract 350,000 tourists a year, but numbers are almost nil due to travel restrictions.
Hotel occupancy rates fell to single digits in 2020 and the first half of 2021, and some hotels have been forced to close, according to the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe.
To promote Victoria Falls as a safe destination, the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa has made vaccines available to the city’s 35,000 residents who share a name with the waterfall. It is estimated that 60% of people there have been vaccinated with Sinopharm or Sinovac vaccines, both from China.
Although tourists have not returned in large numbers, Victoria Falls has mostly been untouched by the current wave of COVID-19 that has swept through the rest of Zimbabwe and southern Africa, which health officials attribute to the level relatively high immunization rate of the city.
Nationwide, more than 1.8 million people, or just over 12% of Zimbabwe’s population, have received a first dose, while more than 900,000 people are fully immunized with two doses.
Bolstered by the vaccination rate at Victoria Falls, the government last week reopened two land borders that connect the city to neighboring countries of Zambia, Namibia and Botswana. Travelers with proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test will be allowed entry.
Victoria Falls was where Zimbabwe recorded its first case of COVID-19 in March 2020, likely due to its high number of international visitors. A year later, at a time when only medical and other essential workers were eligible for vaccines, vaccines were made available to everyone in the city aged 18 and over.
All adult Zimbabweans are now eligible, but due to widespread supply shortages, the lines for jabs are long and many people are disappointed.
Restaurants in Victoria Falls are allowed to serve seated customers – something that is banned in the rest of Zimbabwe, which still has strict restrictions due to the current surge caused by the delta variant of the coronavirus. According to a recent report from the Ministry of Health, nearly 90% of hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19 in the current wave are unvaccinated people.
Although planes filled with tourists have not yet returned, the reopening of Victoria Falls has been a relief for a city that survives on tourism, Anald Musonza, regional president of the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe, told The Associated Press.
“We have been waiting for this for a long time,” said Musonza. “It will help us keep some of the jobs lost due to the pandemic.”
Tourism, along with mining and agriculture, is a key anchor of Zimbabwe’s fragile economy.
Mass vaccinations could help open up tourist destinations across the country, said Tinashe Farawo, spokesperson for the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. The loss of tourism revenue has affected the authority’s ability to function.
“Victoria Falls is a testament to what vaccines can do,” he said. ” It’s good for us. It’s good for wildlife as we can now raise money to deploy our rangers and fund other critical operations.