27 July 2012

Zimbabwe: No Joy for Vic Falls Folk

WITH Victoria Falls co-hosting the United Nations World Tourism Organisation General Assembly next year with Livingstone, a lot of developments had been earmarked to spruce up the resort town.

There were also a lot of expectations from residents in terms of individual, community and town development through employment opportunities and infrastructure that will be constructed and left behind for life after UNWTO.

However, with reports from Harare casting doubt over the major project - the proposed convention centre - the zeal over the assembly has just died down.

The project was supposed to house two hotels, a conference centre that could accommodate over 5 000 delegates and a shopping mall among other notable expectations.

There were great expectations that hundreds of unemployed youths and those with qualifications like Class 1 builders would be employed.

There were great expectations that individual status in society will improve for those luck enough to get jobs.

Residents were dreaming big, hoping and praying that the proposed developments would really change their lives as they anticipated that as locals, they will be the ones to provide all the much needed labour for the projects.

With each passing day, with each passing minute, the unemployed have been losing patience, they have been losing hope of ever getting employment, of ever benefiting from the general assembly.

Later, the dreams were quashed when it was learnt that only a few builders will be engaged for the expansion of the Victoria Falls District Hospital - only a handful of people got the job.

To the stakeholders, to the general residents, dreams of a new Victoria Falls are slowly coming to an end. Soon after we won the bid, Victoria Falls was said to be poised for a major uplift ahead of the general assembly.

There were reports in the media that Government had raised over US$200 million for different projects earmarked for the resort town. At the same time, there were revelations that some regional financial institutions had availed tailor-made loan facilities for refurbishment and recapitalisation projects for the industry. According to stakeholders giving presentations during a meeting early this year, resources had been put in place for the expansion and refurbishment project of Victoria Falls District Hospital into a state-of-the-art institution, upgrading Victoria Falls International Airport, relocate the dumpsite, avail dustbins for every household, TV/ radio access and the rehabilitation of the sewer and water reticulation services among other major projects.

And for a sector that has for the past six to seven years failed to refurbish because of the challenges in the unavailability of credit lines and paucity of at- tractive loans from banks, this was a great opportunity "ride on the wave" and get the assistance to up- grade.

Reports were that the Government had released US$70 million under the Zimbabwe Economic and Trade Revival Facility which was meant to benefit players in the tourism industry.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe was said to have been given a US$15 million lifeline for the expansion of the Victoria Falls International Airport runway, a new terminal and a tower.

The Government was said to have also released US$2,5 million for the rehabilitation of trunk roads, US$822 000 for the rehabilitation of council roads, US$6,9 million for the upgrading of Victoria Falls Hospital and other health facilities.

For upgrading of Victoria Falls water supply, Zinwa and Victoria Falls municipality have been allocated about US$15 million, works include upgrading of the water sewer plant, construction of a 1 000 cubic metre reservoir for Mkhosana and the rehabilitation and expansion of sewer ponds.

The Development Bank of South Africa was also said to have come up with a US$30 million facility which he said will be accessed through the International Development Bank of Zimbabwe.

However, it is now almost a year since the country won the bid in South Korea to co-host the mega event which according to the Tourism and Hospitality Industry permanent secretary Dr Sylvester Maunganidze, was the only chance this current generation had of hosting the conference adding that the next time was likely to be after 300 years.

"So we have to make the best out of it. UNWTO is a member state organisation and over 100 plus sovereign countries all members of UN visiting us, also sovereign states and it therefore becomes diplomatic engagement and therefore the need for diplomatic expectations. We are therefore ambassadors of the country and everything we do should be in the best interest of the country," he said.

Dr Maunganidze added that Zimbabwe had it all in terms of attractions, the people and the infrastructure. "What therefore is remains are the little details, the finishing touches like clean rooms without mosquitoes or lice, clean cutlery and availability of needles, buttons, toothbrushes in the rooms for the guests. They are the little things that count," he said.

There is really nothing on the ground to show that the country is ready to host the event.

Week in week out Government officials report that there is progress taking place and that things are shaping up but the sad reality is that nothing is happening.

And while no one is disputing the fact that what won the bid was not new structures but the existing infrastructure, and that Rooney's went and showcased its state-of-the-art tents which they said can accommodate over 3 000 people, with air-conditioning, perfect lighting and all but residents, stakeholders especially of Victoria Falls had the idea that after the UNWTO, there will be a legacy, infrastructure, etc, borne out of the general assembly.

But now, the only tangible thing is part of the pre-cast wall that is being constructed at the Victoria Falls Hospital.

While others are saying that construction of a beautiful wall before the wards are extended, before the new theatre is put in place, before any machinery is bought is like putting a cart in front of the donkeys, the project is the only tangible thing happening.

Residents said they hoped that the audit currently taking place ends sooner rather than later so that the construction continues.

As things stand now, work towards the refurbishment of the hospital has ground to a halt after the hospital staff allegedly refused to pay service providers.

The hospital authorities in charge of the project allegedly said to be querying the tender processes that saw a lot of Victoria Falls-based companies winning tenders to supply the institution with various services for the first time in a number of years.

The Mayor of Victoria Falls, who is also the UNWTO Local Organising Committee chairperson, Councillor Nkosilathi Jiyane, said work at the hospital shall remain stalled until an audit is carried out on how tenders were awarded.

"We hope that work will resume soon again. At the moment nothing is happening there (at hospital) because some of the staff queried the tender process and, as a result, many people who had supplied building material and other goods to the hospital were not paid and they had to stop work.

"Work is supposed to include refurbishment of wards, construction of a new block, putting up of a pre-cast wall and medical supplies," he said.

On the convention centre construction, Clr Jiyane said that was not going to be done in time for the UNWTO conference, but will be a long-term project.

"The Government had planned to construct a convention centre for the UNWTO conference but now we are instead going to come up with a semi-permanent conference facility near the CHOGM park and it is going to be constructed by a South African company that was involved in the construction of World Cup stadiums in that country.

"The temporary structure can last up to about 25 years and it takes six months to put it up. We are therefore within time for the UNWTO conference," he added.

Residents in separate interviews said when the country hosted CHOGM in the late 1990s, the raw water pumping system was revamped and to this day they attribute that to that event.

They also said ablution blocks for schoolchildren were constructed at Chamabondo Primary School, which hosted some of the delegates. They said unlike UNWTO which they assume will only benefit the hotels and the tour companies, the event will leave no lasting memory for them.

"We thought there will be development ahead of the general assembly but with less than a year to go, there is really nothing for us. We thought we would be employed to do menial work. Most of the employees building the wall at Victoria Falls District Hospital are employed by the Bulawayo company that won the tender. So really, there isn't anything for us," said Mr Bhekimpilo Siziba from Chinotimba Township.

Operators who spoke on condition of anonymity said they had failed to access funds from any local and regional banks which are said to have promised to assist them so that they could recapitalise.

"If there are facilities tell me, we had hoped for facilities that have low interest rates and there is nothing like that out there. That's why even if you go around Victoria Falls no one is refurbishing or has beefed up tour vehicles.

"Statutory Instrument 124 and 125 put in place for us to recapitalise seems to be non-existent. Zimra is saying one thing while Government officials are also saying another thing.

"There is no facility for the tourism players to recapitalise," said a tour operator. Asked for a comment on SI124 and 125, Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, chief operating officer Mr Givemore Chidzidzi said the SIs had run their course and were no longer relevant today.

"Preparations for the general assembly are taking place in Victoria Falls and other areas. Operators are equipping themselves but they have a major problem on incentives to re-equip, refurbish and retool.

"The SIs to do with the buying of vehicles duty free expired. There was SI43 and 60 of 2009 which were replaced by SI124 and 125 of 2011 but that facility has been reduced and therefore there is an outcry from the sector.

"We would have wished for the SIs to be extended towards the UNWTO. We need investment in Victoria Falls, we need the correct vehicles, coaches, bedding and all that to make our product the best," he said.

One hopes that the proposed projects kick off soon.

But the question is how since Government is said to be broke?

Last week, Finance Minister Tendai Biti cut the 2012 National Budget from US$4 billion to US$3,4 billion.

So one wonders where the money for the projects will come from in time for the UNWTO. But as it stands now, dreams shall remain dreams for residents and other stakeholders.

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