TOURISM is increasingly becoming important to the Zambian economy as Government looks to the sector to provide solutions to the country's social and economic development.
The tourism sector is mainly based on wildlife, the Victoria Falls and Lake Tanganyika, among others.
The overall Zambian tourism boasts world-leading natural sites which include Kafue National Park, the second largest in Africa, and South Luangwa National Park, which has a high animal density and diversity.
Others include the Victoria Falls, which is a world heritage site and one of the seven natural wonders of the world; Lake Kariba, the largest man-made lake in the world; Lake Tanganyika and the Zambezi River, which runs across south-central Africa.
The tourism sector is guided by the Tourism Policy (1999) and the Poverty Reduction Strategy (2002) which stresses the importance of tourism development as a means of reducing poverty with special focus on rural areas.
The goal of the policy is to facilitate the development of a diversified, sustainable and regionally competitive tourism industry and ensure a quality environment and sustainable utilisation of heritage and natural resources.
However, the tourism industry in its existing state has failed to make any meaningful contribution to the country's national development due to several factors which include infrastructure that is either poor or in the wrong place and uneconomical routes.
Other factors include poor marketing of Zambia as a tourist destination of choice, unstable exchange rates and other cost factors leading to the cost of a bed night in Zambia being the highest in the Southern African region.
The Zambia Wildlife Authority in its current form under the Zambia Wildlife Authority Act of 1998 has been extorting exorbitant fees from tourism operators and has also not been honouring its financial obligations of sharing fees with local communities in the Game Management Areas (GMAs).
As a result, the country is one of the most expensive and least known destinations for any visiting tourist in the Southern African region.
Additionally, the failure to control the human-animal conflict in GMAs is another factor which has led to increased levels of hunger and poverty.
It is against this background that Government decided to review the policy in an effort to respond to the changing trends in the tourism business environment and make the country a tourism prime destination in Africa.
The policy under formulation is one that would take into account three sub-sectors which include hospitality, tourism, arts and culture.
Tourism and Arts Minister Sylvia Masebo, who launched the process recently, however, said there was need for key players in the sector to contribute to the creation of the policy.
So far the creation of a new comprehensive tourism policy has been launched and Government is inviting proposals and comments towards the formulation of the policy.
Livingstone Tourism Association president Kingsley Lilamono, who echoed similar sentiments, added that the policy should recognise the tourism policy so that it is backed by a legal framework.
Mr Lilamono said the policy should tally with the Patriotic Front (PF)'s manifesto which is explicit on the development of the sector.
According to the PF manifesto, Government wants the sector to contribute to increasing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita within a short period of time, thus contributing to employment creation and opportunities.
Government wants the new policy to promote the growth of resource-based tourism which is environmentally sustainable and should be accessible to future generations.
Enhancing employment of village scouts to ensure rural employment opportunities and incomes are some of the issues Government wants to address in the new policy.
Promotion of well-targeted Government investment in infrastructure development, opening up new tourist sites, and establishing collaborations with the private sector to introduce economic routes by road and air to viable tourist destinations are being taken care of in the new policy.
Cultural and ethno-tourism will be promoted in all the provinces in order to create job opportunities in the rural areas.
The policy will seek to promote and collaborate Government with the private sector so as to enhance the marketing of the sector locally and internationally as well as introducing regulations to address the human-animal conflict in GMAs so as to protect wildlife and local communities.
Establishing a wildlife and tourism research and training institute to enhance local skills in the sector are among issues considered in the new policy.
Hotel and Catering Association of Zambia (HCAZ) president Felix Mulenga said the new policy should have a strategic objective that will guide the direction tourism should take in the country.
Mr Mulenga said there was need for the policy to define what sort of tourism - mass or mini - should be promoted as opposed to the current situation where there was no order in the sector.
Against this background, Mr Mulenga said HCAZ was proposing formation of the Zambia Tourism Authority whose objective would be to spearhead product development, marketing, human resource development, and research and development which currently do not exist.
"The Zambia Tourism Board is too much of Government but we need something which will be private driven. The tourism board is too separated from the reality of the industry apart from marketing," Mr Mulenga said.
He said the Zambia Tourism Authority should look at issues such as grading and classification of tourism enterprises unlike the current scenario where one could not tell the distinction between a lodge, hotel or guest house.
He said the policy should define the domestic market and how it could support the business during a low season when there are less international or national activities.
Zambia Association of Musician (ZAM) president Maiko Zulu said the policy should promote local identity of music and attire.
Mr Zulu said lack of a clear-cut policy is what has made the country to be without a national identity with regard to music and dress code.
"Take a look at parliamentarians; they have adopted wearing suits in the house, but this is British. Why can't the House adopt a traditional attire at least one day of the sitting like Friday," Mr Zulu asked.
He said it was sad that Parliament had Chinese paintings when there are local artists who can do a good job.
He attributed such lapses to lack of a clear-cut policy in the sector.
Mr Zulu said the policy should compel the corporate world to use local artists unlike a situation where foreigners are engaged to promote tourism.
He said the use of local artists would create wealth for them and subsequently reduce poverty.
Some tour operators said the policy should promote more incentives such as access to financing and human resource.
Rainbow Safaris chairperson Active Monze said easier access to and lower cost of finance could facilitate greater investments and growth of the tourism industry.
"For Zambian non-agricultural firms, including those in the tourism industry, access to banking services is associated with 44 per cent higher productivity.
"Yet, while large businesses have near-universal access to banking services and nearly half use financial credit, micro, small and medium enterprises, particularly those that are locally owned, rarely have such access," Mr Monze said.
He said the tourism industry faces a number of problems including high interest rates and high collateral requirements.
The lack of long-term finance that could facilitate the large upfront capital investments in facilities that have a long payback period are some of the issues the policy should address.
Mr Monze said the policy should consider giving rebates to players who want to venture into unexploited tourism areas like Lochinvar, for example, which has the biggest bird sanctuary in the world.
In Zambia, a large proportion of the tourism industry's supply requirements are met through imports, mainly from South Africa, with roughly half of the purchases being locally produced.
Tour operators pay high premiums largely related to customs and excise duties for imports over what the goods cost in South Africa.
This puts the operators at a competitive disadvantage and the situation for small and rural operators, who are faced with additional transportation costs, is even worse.
One means of reducing the cost of inputs is through local sourcing of items for which capacity exists or can be developed to supply high-quality and reasonably priced goods and services.
Developing greater backward linkages in this way could not only reduce costs to operators but also benefit local producers, which are other issues that the policy should look at.
Lower costs of key inputs such as food and beverages may also translate into lower prices and improved value-for-money for tourists, thereby influencing the demand side of the equation as well.
As a human resource-intensive industry, labour is a major component of the costs of operating tourism enterprises.
Thunder Bird Car Hire proprietor Frederick Mwendapole said lack of motivation caused by an inadequate link between pay and performance, and weak skills due to a lack of both training and exposure to international service standards are the two key factors underlying poor labour productivity.
"It is against this background that the policy should strive to address these key issues," Mr Mwendapole said.
Chief Ndungu of the Luvale people of Zambezi West said sustainable tourism development faces many challenges which the new policy should address.
He cited inadequate marketing and product development, poor programme implementation, lack of development finance and lack of skilled local manpower as some of the challenges.
Chief Ndungu added that lack of private sector incentives, bureaucratic delays and the high cost of operations affected the development and growth of the sector.
He, however, said it was also encouraging to note that Government intends to review the ZAWA Act.
Ms Masebo, when she announced the reviewing of the ZAWA Act, said the new legal framework needs to take into account the local people's traditions and culture.
It is, therefore, expected that once a clear-cut policy is formulated and implemented, Zambia will become the prime tourism destination in the region.