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Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls hopes for World Cup revival

Victoria Falls — A decade after the bottom fell out of Zimbabwean tourism, Victoria Falls wants to re-establish itself as a luxury and adventure travel destination ahead of South Africa’s World Cup.

Operators are polishing their attractions — though sometimes with what is seen as too much enthusiasm.

The town, home to the world’s largest waterfall, was once a tourist magnet but years of political violence and economic collapse have sent holidaymakers fleeing. Those who do come stay across the Zambezi River on the Zambian side of the falls.

The decline is stunning: 10 years ago, Zimbabwe drew 1.4 million tourists who generated 400 million US dollars (281 million euros) for the economy. In 2008, 223,000 tourists came, generating 29.1 million dollars.

"Right now things are not well within the tourism industry, but it’s far much better compared to last year when we did not have tourists because of political violence," said Ollalia Nyoni, a local hotel manager.

The unity government formed in February 2009, which has stabilised the economy and curbed 2008’s post-election violence, has given new hope to tourism.

Victoria Falls is only a 90-minute flight from Johannesburg, but Zimbabwe so far is struggling to find ways to cash in on the games that run from June 11 to July 11, 2010.

State media complained last month when hotels in Victoria Falls failed to agree with FIFA’s accommodation service on prices for the World Cup. Zimbabwe’s hotels were seeking rates of between 1,000 and 3,000 dollars (700 and 2,100 euros) a night. FIFA proposed maximum rates of about 500 dollars, according to state media.

The town now wants to draw football fans by increasing the number of helicopter flights over the mile-wide falls and then into the 100-metre (328 feet) gorge where the Zambezi lands with such power that the mist booms another 100 metres over the top.

Elephants, hippos, rhinos and other big game fill the parks surrounding the falls, creating spectacular views for those with the stomach for the flight.

"These animals and the falls make this area tick," Victoria Falls mayor Nkosilathi Jiyane said.

Six helicopters already have licenses to fly over the falls, but the new plan would see the number rise to 28 — raising questions about safety in a narrow air space, as well as noise pollution and the environmental impact.

"Given that World Cup in South Africa is less than a year away, the helicopters might also prove to be another attraction," said Nyoni.

But other hoteliers complain the noise will become a nuisance, while environmentalists worry over the effect on wildlife, which could affect the area’s World Heritage Site status.

"Daily we have to endure the noise and constant irritation from these aircraft which fly directly over and above the Victoria Falls hotel," a group of hoteliers wrote to the World Heritage Commission.

Ian du Preeze, conservationist with Victoria Falls game reserve, said increased flights could affect animal breeding.

"The breeding of animals will also be disturbed as animals will be trying to find new quiet places. Victoria Falls is a small place and it obviously can’t have all those helicopters flying over the place," he said.

The Zambezi National Park, together with the Victoria Falls, covers an area of 56,000 hectares (138,000 acres).

"This is one of the most difficult decisions we as (town) council have to make. It’s a question of profits versus environment," Jiyane said.

Debate over how to draw in tourists has distracted from efforts to reassure travellers, especially after cholera swept the country last year.

But Nyoni insisted that with the unity government is place and the World Cup nearing, Zimbabwe has a chance to turn itself around.

"Tourist arrivals are not as high as we would want but why should we be in a perpetual mode of low arrivals, we should plan ahead," Nyoni said. "Planning ahead means looking forward with good results."

Godfrey Marawanyika/AFP/Expatica