Editor's Note: Gateway is a Skift series featuring first-hand, original stories from our correspondents embedded in cities around the world. The logo reflects where the correspondent is based and not necessarily the article's focus. Read about the series here.
You could perhaps forgive the powers-that-be in Zimbabwean tourism for their enthusiasm.
Since adopting the U.S. dollar as an official Zimbabwean currency in 2009, during a period of hyperinflation, tourist confidence in the region has been restored, and arrivals figures are on the rise.
Between the lure of the Victoria Falls and a clutch of high-end safari destinations, sustainable eco-tourism has the region in the limelight once again.
Many local tour operators, though, were taken aback by plans, announced in July, to build a Grand Prix circuit near Victoria Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The $1.2 billion project, which is being bankrolled by Dubai-based consortium Feonirich, will include the construction of a grade one Grand Prix Circuit, convention center, medical center, and shopping mall on 271 hectares (670 acres) near the Victoria Falls International Airport. The airport was recently revamped in a $150 million project that included a new international terminal and 2.4 mile runway capable of handling wide-body, long-haul aircraft.
At the ceremonial ground-breaking in July, Zimbabwe Vice President Constantino Chiwenga commented: “The project, which follows the completion of Victoria Falls International Airport, is set to reposition Vic Falls as a tourism hub within southern Africa, in terms of sports tourism, as well as business, leisure and health tourism.”
While the project generated plenty of self-congratulatory press in Zimbabwe, tourism operators in southern Africa are less impressed with the possibility of a massive new development in the heart of a region famed for its wilderness and wildlife attractions.
“We are concerned about the noise, visual and environmental impact,” said Robert More, CEO of More, which operates a pair of boutique hotels between the airport and Victoria Falls town.
Other executives were reluctant to openly express such sentiments. Of the operators contacted by Skift, only a few were willing to comment on the record. But privately, opinions ranged from suggesting the project was merely a propaganda stunt for the mid-year presidential elections to concerns that the proposed development is entirely out of keeping with the area.
“There is a new feeling of hope in the country despite the post-election violence. But with these huge changes and investment opportunities, like the Grand Prix project, I think that new developments should align themselves with conservation,” said Murray Gardiner, co-owner and CEO of Giltedge Group, which operates high-end tours in the region. “Zimbabwe’s raw beauty and wildlife is its biggest selling point after all.”
Gardiner wasn’t alone in his thinking.
“We think it is an incongruous addition at a UNESCO [World Heritage] Site,” added John Ridler, spokesperson for Johannesburg-based tour operator Thompsons. “The larger F1 (Formula 1) events around the world attract many thousands of spectators over three days, and it seems unlikely that the current infrastructure would cope.”
Accommodation capacity in the area is around 4,000 beds, far below what would be required at a major event. And despite the likes of Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and South African Airways having increased capacity to Victoria Falls, air access would likely be a major stumbling block.
For now, those are concerns for the future. What remains to be seen is whether the project will actually get any further than a ceremonial ground breaking and grand plans. Whether this is merely hubris, or an inspired vision for the future of Victoria Falls will remain to be seen over the next few years.