IN 2005, nature tourism contributed to nearly 16 per cent of Zambian exports, 6.5 per cent of GDP, seven per cent of Government revenues, 10 per cent of formal sector employment and nearly six per cent of wages.
Taking into account other types of tourism outside nature tourism, the economic contribution of the industry is likely to be even greater. From 1997 to 2008, receipts from international tourists averaged 5.4 per cent of total exports.
And since then, the tourism sector has been expanding. The number of international tourists in Zambia increased by 7.7 per cent, from 756,860 arrivals in 2006 to just more than 800,000 in 2010. Revenue from international tourists grew from US$29 million in 1997 to $146 million in 2008, so it is on an upward trend.
However, to put this in its regional context, in 2009, Africa welcomed 90 million international tourists. Of this total, only 10 per cent came to Zambia.
Government's goal was to increase tourist arrivals to four million and tourism direct earnings to $224 million in 2010, and then to $550 million by 2015. Are we there yet?
In 2010, Zambia's earnings from tourism was about $125 million, while in Zimbabwe it was $634 million, in Tanzania it was $1.2 billion and Kenya received $1.6 billion (WTO, 2010). So, we can get there, but there remains a ways to go.
Given the dearth of current data, if we use income from hunting as a proxy for tourism earning potential, given a large proportion of Zambia's tourism revenues comes from wild life and parks- Zambia's income from hunting is still the lowest among the countries below.
We do not have complete data sets for the full income earned and jobs created in this sector, but based on the data and evidence available, the true potential remains untapped and very high.
Today, wild life and parks as central to Zambia's tourism sector, is not competitive and does not have a significant share in the regional market (South Africa receives $16 per hectare; Zambia in 2011 received $1.4/hectare).
What can make a difference to this picture? First, it is about, putting forest, water and wild life conservation and management the heart of the long-term vision of growth and prosperity for Zambia.
Secondly, local communities must be more directly engaged in the management of natural resources, they must be the social watch mechanism to protect and manage what is theirs, and also be held responsible for doing so.
Thirdly, local and national leaders must demonstrate the courage and commitment to regulate illegal hunting, encroachment and deforestation.
Well-regulated hunting, responsible land use planning, promoting renewable energy use and sustainable agricultural practices and planting back the trees lost and then many, many more, with the active and responsible participation also of the private sector,can and will make a difference.
If these are elements of a national conservation strategy, the country can generate jobs and incomes from its tourism and natural resources sectors for a long while to come.
The time is now to reclassify protected areas and have distinct standards, regulations and management arrangements for each location.
This also requires more current data, so evidence-based decisions can be made. For the tourism sector to grow and be increasingly competitive in the region, Zambia needs to attract new visitors.
Zambia needs to market itself better outside of the country, through its foreign embassies and its partners. Today, Zambia is an expensive destination which is little-known.
There is also need to reduce in-country travel costs and transport options to encourage more domestic tourism.There are many more wonderful treasures out there that are yet to be accessed, including gorges and waterfalls, cultural sites and practices.
To do this, people need to know, package and brand what the country has and can proudly display.
The growth potential of this sector is based on its employment and wealth creation opportunity, for both current and future generations.
And in particular, the generation of green jobs which will be the mainstay of a job rich growth. So what can be done today?
We can begin by updating the Law.The legislation surrounding Parks and GMAs has not been updated since -1999.
This includes the Lands Act, Heritage Act, Agriculture Act and the Forestry Act (the Fisheries Act was updated in 2011).
In revising the legislation, priority issues to consider include carbon sequestration being defined as a tradable commodity, the inclusion of new categories of protected areas and a renewed institutional framework to govern the wildlife and parks sector.
It is not enough to revise the laws. The current governance arrangements have shown their limitations.
The commitment to institutional reforms that will enable the restoration and protection of national parks by the State, while strengthening a regulatory body for standard setting and managing of GMAs under public-private partnerships, could well see this sector thrive.
Such arrangements have to go hand-in-hand with the reclassification of protected areas. Much has been studied and recommended in this regard, so now it is about national leaders making the decisions and moving ahead.
The sector needs new financing. Domestic and international contributions can be optimised, as done in many other countries in the region and outside, by using and directing visa fees, carbon tax, and some accommodation and licensing revenues towards conservation and protection, park infrastructure, as well as branding Zambia to the world.
The right inducements, and penalties,must ensure that the country's laws are abided by, and that punishments fit the crime, so that Zambia attracts the 'right' kind of tour operators, hunters, tourists and investors that are willing to contribute to conservation, while meeting their bottom lines.
This also demands an adequate cadre of trained village scouts and increased numbers of foresters and rangers so they can provide the field oversight and protection services needed. Today, these numbers seem inadequate for the challenge at hand.
As we head towards World Tourism Day, Zambia must stand ready to showcase its rich green wealth to the world. Once stakeholder dialogues are had, agreements reached and bold decisions taken that will both protect and promote this sector - they have to remain in place with a consistency and commitment that enable the wildlife, forestry and overall tourism sector to prosper over the long haul.
With the natural resource base this country has, if one is able to halt the current levels of damage and destruction, this will be one of Zambia's foremost job and wealth creating sectors for a long time to come. Zambia can show, in very real ways, that the dual goals of rapid growth and sustainable development are not incompatible.
In doing so, it will demonstrate that the wise management and conservation of natural resources is integral to a post 2015 vision of development for the country, region and for the world.
(The authors are UN resident coordinator and UNDP representative, and UNDP environment and energy advisor respectively)