Victoria Falls targets tourism traffic to help build long-haul links

Since Zimbabwe hosted delegates at Routes Africa in June 2014, what was then a building site at Victoria Falls International Airport has now turned into a brand new modern facility ready to host global visitors.

Its new 4,000 metre runway will open Victoria Falls International Airport to the potential of direct long-haul flights significantly boosting trade and tourism opportunities in the North of Zimbabwe.

The project, part of a $150 million investment by the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ) to upgrade facilities at the airport and boost passenger capacity from just 500,000 to around two million, is now nearing its final stage as the old terminal building is converted into a domestic facility.

Since Zimbabwe hosted delegates at Routes Africa in June 2014, what was then a building site has now turned into a brand new modern facility ready to host global visitors.

“We are near to the completion of the Victoria Falls International Airport project,” David Chawota, head of the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe told Routesonline at this year’s Routes Africa air service development forum in Tenerife, Canary Islands.

“The international terminal is up and running, the runway is fully operational, the air traffic control tower is live and all associated functions for facilitating passenger arrivals and departures are in place,” he said.

“We are now working on the completion of the new fire station and final renewal work on the old terminal as it is switched to domestic operations only.  We hope this will all be completed by the end of July 2016,” he added.

The landing strip, the foundations of which are already in place, and associated taxiways, in addition to the extending the existing apron area will enable the airport to handle aircraft up to Boeing 747 size and accept direct flights from destinations across a range of long-haul markets, including Europe, opening the doors for the introduction of potential tour operator packages.

The new Victoria Falls International Airport opens up new tourism opportunities into Zimbabwe.

“We are now engaging with local stakeholders and the tourism industry in and around Victoria Falls to start promoting the opportunities available to visitors and to try and establish the town as a resort centre for southern Africa,” explained Chawota.

The UK is a large market for Zimbabwe. Every year around 143,000 passengers fly in and out Zimbabwe from Europe with around 84,000 of these beginning or ending their journeys in the UK. “The UK is a key market for us with huge potential,” confirmed Chawota, and he is confident that Air Zimbabwe will finally get the green light to return to the lucrative London market.

The airline has been talking about returning its Harare – London Gatwick link for a number of years, but an outstanding debt in the country has meant it has been unable to gain accessibility back into the market.

“The Government has committed to support Air Zimbabwe with its return to long-haul markets,” said Chawota.  “I don’t think it will be long before they are back flying to the UK and even China. The Government has already overcome previous issues to resume the Johannesburg route.”

Although these flights will ultimately operate to and from Harare, the CAA head says there could be regular flights routing via Victoria Falls on outbound and inbound legs as had been the case in the past.

“Due to the short runway at Victoria Falls these flights were restricted to specialist flight crews that had received additional training to serve the airport. With the new runway, the door is now open to everyone,” said Chawota.

During a special Routes Talks presentation at Routes Africa, Tawanda Gusha, director of Airports, CAAZ, had highlighted how the government agency was acting as “enablers” and putting the infrastructure in place to attract airlines.

He admitted that acquiring the necessary data for the airport redevelopment project was difficult. Ahead of the project taking place, obstacles had to be overcome; prior to completion it was believed the project was not viable and the numbers did not justify it. The understanding from tCAAZ was that something had to be done in order to attract new airlines.

Victoria Falls Airport is currently performing under their capacity, meaning that at present they are far from being profitable. The hot topic in Africa remains liberalisation and Gusha noted that Zimbabwe is “one of the countries which has taken strides in the implementation of the Yamoussoukro Decision.” The intention of CAAZ is to continue to enable liberalisation, but Gusha asked at what cost?

An issue which has arisen from these projects is that they have been funded on a loan basis. Due to the current traffic situation it begs the question as to how the money will be paid back if the airport is not profitable. “This is where we have to think outside the box and be innovative, and find out ways and means of ensuring that we service the loan while at the same time making a profit,” said Gusha.

The government has to reduce taxes, as it raises a challenge on securing services to the airport, but airport charges on their own contribute a very small amount to airline costs. Gusha said: “We are in the process of ensuring that our airport is fully utilised, and we want to ensure that people come to Victoria Falls and to Zimbabwe.” Talks are currently ongoing with a consultant to ensure the airport is being marketed properly.

Chawota believes that Air Zimbabwe remains the fastest opportunity to bring long-haul passengers directly to Victoria Falls, but revealed that there were other possibilities too. “We have been speaking to Qatar Airways and have received an indication they could fly into Zimbabwe as part of their African network growth and likewise Turkish Airlines is understood to be assessing the market,” said Chawota.  “We are working now to make this all possible.”

(additional reporting via Laura Hamill)

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