LIVINGSTONE, Zambia – Zambian President Edgar Lungu on Tuesday ordered the re-opening of the Victoria Falls and local hotels to tourists – on the same day that the country announced the highest daily jump in coronavirus cases.
Lungu announced a partial lockdown on March 25, closing gymnasiums, bars, restaurants and large gatherings, but he did not close the country’s borders.
On May 8, he allowed most businesses to re-open and also announced the re-opening of exam-taking classes from June 1.
The 63-year-old took a tour of the Victoria Falls on Tuesday and ordered officials to re-open the premier tourist attraction, on the border with Zimbabwe, “to save jobs”. On the same day, the health ministry announced 174 new cases from 338 tests performed on May 9 and 10, taking the cumulative cases to 441.
Lungu said the closure of the Victoria Falls was “suffocating” the tourism sector, which contributed US$1.8 billion to the economy (6 percent of GDP) and employs more than 300,000 people, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.
Lungu noted that Livingstone town had no recorded cases of the coronavirus, as he urged his tourism minister Ronald Chitotela to facilitate a re-opening that adheres to “the new normal” – a reference to World Health Organisation guidelines on curbing the spread of the virus.
Chitotela noted that international restrictions on air travel could mean that it would be many months before overseas tourists flock to the falls again. He urged tourism players to come up with incentives to encourage domestic tourism.
Lungu said it was disheartening that not many tourists will get to see the spectacle of the Victoria Falls this winter season after an astonishing rebound.
“The falls are at their peak this year after several years of low water levels, but there are no tourists here,” Lungu said.
Livingstone Tourism Council representative Rodney Sikumba said they were grateful to the government for responding to their request of re-opening tourism sites whose closure threatened thousands of jobs.
Seven people have died from the coronavirus in Zambia, while 117 have recovered.
Zambia did not follow its neighbours in closing its borders although it has closed its border with Tanzania over concerns about that country’s response to the spread of the virus.
The move came after the town of Nakonde, on the border with Tanzania, recorded 76 new cases.
International flights in and out of Zambia are allowed, but only from the main airport in Lusaka. Visitors arriving at the airport get a temperature screening, and those exhibiting symptoms are taken away for further testing and mandatory quarantining.
Zimbabwe, meanwhile, has closed the Victoria Falls rainforest indefinitely, although most businesses have been allowed to re-open. Only one person has tested positive for the coronavirus in Victoria Falls from the 37 cases nationally, and they have since recovered, according to the health ministry.