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Flying high on the tourist dollar

Visitors to Victoria Falls once preferred to see it from Zimbabwe. But the country's troubles have seen them switching to the Zambian side of the border.

Patiently whittling away on a piece of rosewood, craftsman John Sianene sits in a hut in Mukuni village. It is some seven kilometres west of Victoria Falls, the World Heritage Site that pours tonnes of water from the Zambezi river into the gorges of Livingstone.

Sianene, who is 26, sells African masks and other curios to tourists. Like other artisans here, tourism has made all the difference to his life. "I send my children to school and have three meals daily. We have problems, but life is better than before tourism started flourishing," he says.

In a few short years Livingstone has transformed from a town that wore a shabby look and was visited by few tourists to the undisputed tourist capital of Zambia. The evidence can be seen at the airport, which receives 20 flights daily, in contrast to three years ago, when only five flights a day landed here. The airport tarmac is being extended with the help of grants from international donors to accommodate Boeing 767s, which carry up to 260 passengers.

Livingstone's growth has made it a place of interest to policymakers working to lift Zambia out of poverty. In a recent survey of living conditions in Zambia's southern province, seven districts were classed as having poverty levels of more than 73 per cent. In Livingstone, where tourism brings in visitors and foreign currency the number of people classed as living in poverty was 42 per cent. The government is encouraging more investment in tourism across the country in the hope of creating jobs and enhancing livelihoods. Last year, tourism contributed two per cent of the Zambian GDP, and the government is aiming for a figure of eight per cent by 2010.

Its strategy is showing promise; visitor numbers were up nearly 30 per cent last year, according to Ephraim Belemu at the Zambia National Tourist Board. In glossy magazines and newspaper supplements around the world, Zambia is being tipped as the hottest new destination in Southern Africa.

On the banks of the Zambezi, just a few metres from the Victoria Falls, are the five-star Royal Livingstone and three-star Zambezi Sun hotels. Both owned by the South African Sun International multinational chain, they promise luxury and comfort. The architecture of the Zambezi Sun is inspired by Zambian traditions, with adobe-style low buildings painted in earthy colours that sit comfortably with local designs.

"We employ 750 people and run a community programme," says Zambezi Sun corporate affairs manager Stanley Musungaila. There is also a charitable side to the business: Sun International funds 30 blind farmers who supply fresh vegetables to the two hotels and it supports orphanages and street children with food and beds.

Tourism provides jobs for around 3,600 locals. Nicholas Katenekwa, chairman of the Livingstone Tourism Association says the real number is even higher: "When we consider the multiplier effect of six to eight dependents, some 28,000 people are dependent on tourism."

In Mukuni village, home of John Sianene, poor rain patterns have left people with little farming activity, so most people sell curios. Chief Mukuni, who oversees the Mukuni Development Trust, which charges fees to tour operators says "Tourism is the lifeline of Mukuni Village, we are benefiting immensely. Soon we shall also start running tourism enterprises which we are registering."

The trust levies 900,000 kwacha per month [around US$230] from firms that operate helicopter rides and it charges three dollars to tourists who want to visit the village. In addition, it approaches individual tourism firms and lodges, asking them to erect communal buildings such classrooms and a ward at a medical centre.

But not everyone believes that foreign investments aimed at attracting high-end tourists will help money to trickle down to local business.

Aaron Daka runs a restaurant near to Victoria Falls. He says "The tourists who come are mostly whites [foreigners] – they visit places run by whites and leave all the money there. As Zambians, we get almost nothing. I get only some six white tourists per month." Most tour operators are non-Zambians, although the Livingstone Tourism Association points out that many local businesses benefit from providing outsourced services to the operators.

At the big hotels there have been struggles over wages. There was a huge outcry by locals when Sun International did not pay its workers the service charges that are provided for under Zambian law. Ten per cent of any bill paid in the hotels is supposed to go to workers and this, according to hotel workers, is the main source of their income.

The hotel now pays the service charge. "But as you know not all lodges pay service charge which means many workers lose out," says Mubiana Sitwala, secretary for the Hotels Catering and Allied Workers Union. "In terms of infrastructure, private investors are building quite significantly. But we're seeing a lot of South African investors engaging people as casual labourers. Tourism would have had a much positive impact if first and foremost casualisation was stopped. If workers are not getting enough even the communities they live in will not benefit."

Close to the Zambezi Sun, sellers at a curio market complain that competition from across the border is affecting trade, especially in the quiet season. "Some of the operators get cheaper curios from Zimbabwe where traders have slashed prices. Although I manage to send my children to school, business is bad" says Cathbert Muswati.

There is little doubt that tourism is providing a living for nearly half of Livingstone. The larger question is whether, as the tourist industry in Zambia begins to expand, local businesses and employees will get the crumbs instead of the whole loaf.

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