THE year 2012 started on a positive note after Zambia and Zimbabwe won a joint bid to co-host the 20th session of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) general assembly in 2013.
During the 19th session of the UNWTO general assembly held in Gyeongju, South Korea from October 8-14 2011, delegates across the world unanimously agreed that Zambia and Zimbabwe co-host this important world event.
The event would be co-hosted in Livingstone city on the Zambian side and Victoria Falls town on the Zimbabwean side from August 24-29, 2013.
Zambia and Zimbabwe are expecting a maximum of 4,000 participants during the UNWTO general assembly next year.
This would comprise 1,500 delegates from more than 180 member states, affiliate and associate members of the UNWTO, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and the general travelling public.
Zambia and Zimbabwe have already agreed to share the costs of co-hosting on 50/50 basis, which means that each country would host about 2,000 delegates.
The general assembly is the principal gathering of the UNWTO which meets after every two years to consider the budget and programme of work of the United Nations specialised agency on tourism.
Delegates to the general assembly are drawn from the six regional commissions of the UNWTO from Africa, the Americas, the East and Pacific Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
In terms of preparations, technocrats from Zambia and Zimbabwe made headways to prepare for the event during the year 2012.
However, some sections of society expressed concern at the alleged slow speed at which the preparations were going on.
In the first quarter of 2012, a technical team from the UNWTO secretariat in Spain visited Livingstone and Victoria Falls town to inspect various facilities ahead of the 2013 general assembly.
After the tour, the team indicated that they had a successful technical mission but urged the two Southern African countries to improve in some areas.
The UNWTO technical team again visited the country in August, the same year on a similar mission and it was again impressed at the two countries' preparedness to co-host the UNWTO general assembly.
In May 2012, Zambian President Michael Sata, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai signed a trilateral hosting agreement at Victoria Falls Bridge to signify their commitment and determination to the successful hosting of the event.
On August 24, 2012, Zambia and Zimbabwe launched the countdown to the co-hosting of the UNWTO general assembly, as the day marked exactly one year before the 2013 conference.
Tourism and Arts Minister Sylvia Masebo launched the countdown in Livingstone with a call to Zambians to start doing something every day that would add value to the co-hosting of the event.
After the countdown launch, Ms Masebo organised Tourism Investment Forums mainly to stimulate investments in Livingstone and create more destinations for tourism across Zambia ahead of the UNWTO general assembly.
Already, some local and international investors have expressed interest to invest in Zambia's tourist capital following the Investment Forums.
Radisson Blu Hotel proprietor Ody's Manidenakis, who attended the forums, expressed interest to set up a three to five-star hotel in Livingstone ahead of the UNWTO general assembly.
Further, a group of Jews living in Zambia led by Simon Zukas said it was planning to establish a small Jewish museum in Livingstone at a cost of US$100,000 to profile the history and relevance of early Jewish settlers in the tourist capital ahead of the UNWTO general assembly.
On the ground in Livingstone, the hospitality industry did not stay aloof during the year 2012 but also made steady progress in terms of upgrading their infrastructure to prepare for the general assembly.
On its part, the Zambian Government also released funding to several institutions in Livingstone to upgrade their infrastructure ahead of the general assembly.
Some of the institutions which received funding during the year to prepare for the conference are Livingstone City Council, Livingstone Museum, National Heritage Conservation Commission (NHCC), National Airports Corporation Limited (NACL), Zambia Police and Immigration Department, among others.
The Livingstone City Council received about K6.5 billion from Government to construct ablution blocks as well as a two-storey ultramodern market and an intercity bus terminus to prepare for the conference.
In the road sector, Inyatsi Roads Zambia Limited, a company which was recently awarded contract by Road Development Agency (RDA) to upgrade 40 kilometres of selected urban roads in Livingstone, commenced initial works of clearing the roads and unblocking the drainage systems in the tourist capital.
Further, the Livingstone Museum received more than K500 million and the institution already managed to buy a generator set to mitigate power disruptions during the UNWTO conference.
On the other hand, the National Heritage Conservation Commission received about K2.3 billion to upgrade infrastructure at the Victoria Falls World Heritage site.
The proposed works, which are expected to be completed by May 2013, would include the construction of a steel fence, upgrading information dissemination, construction of a new ablution block and change rooms as well as the installation of a new ticketing system.
Other works would include improvement of walking trail, construction of barricades and construction of resting shelters.
The Zambia Police has also received about K1.3 billion towards the rehabilitation of some police stations ahead of the UNWTO general assembly.
According to Southern Province police chief Charity Katanga, the funding is not necessary for the whole Southern Province but for some selected places in the province with a bias towards Livingstone since the city would be hosting the UNWTO conference.
"Right now, we have started the upgrading of the Division Headquarters for Southern Province in Livingstone," Ms Katanga said.
On arts and culture, the Government recently signed a contract with a Chinese firm Chao Chao Construction Limited to complete the construction of Maramba Cultural Village in Livingstone at a cost of K4.1 billion.
The 16-week contract would involve the construction of a kitchen, restaurant, bar, outdoor stage, landscaping, external fencing and the completion of the village to promote cultural tourism in Livingstone ahead of the conference.
On the health front, the Livingstone General Hospital has already acquired an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to prepare the medical institution for the event.
According to Ministry of Health Permanent Secretary Peter Mwaba, plans are also underway to acquire a Computerised Tomography (CT) scanner for the hospital.
A CT scan, which is mostly used in advanced medical institutions around the globe, uses X-rays to make detailed pictures of structures inside of the body.
Dr Mwaba said the popularised CT scanner would be procured from the K204 billion that had been allocated to Livingstone, Ndola, Kitwe and University Teaching Hospital (UTH) in the 2013 national budget.
"From the health point of view, Livingstone will never be the same again because it will have an ICU and CT scanner during the UNWTO conference. We need to market these developments very well so that people who will come during the UNWTO general assembly will know what is available in Livingstone," Dr Mwaba said.
Further, the construction of a new terminal building at Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula International Airport in Livingstone is expected to be completed by May 2013 ahead of schedule.
The existing airport building has the capacity to attract 250,000 passengers per year while the new terminal building would be attracting about 700,000 passengers annually.
To close the year, the national steering committee tasked to oversee preparations of UNWTO general assembly in Livingstone inspected various facilities in the tourist capital and other surrounding places from December 21 to 23, 2012.
After a three-day tour, the committee was generally satisfied with the works that have been done so far to prepare for the event.
The committee also noted some loopholes in some areas and called for speedy mending of loopholes ahead of the general assembly.
National steering committee chairperson Peter Kasanda, who is also Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet, said his team was generally satisfied with the work that had been done so far to prepare for the global tourism summit.
Others who were in the delegation were Local Government and Housing Permanent Secretary Bernard Namachila, Commerce, Trade and Industry Permanent Secretary Stephen Mwansa, Dr Mwaba, Home Affairs Deputy Permanent Secretary Kaizer Zulu, Information and Broadcasting Permanent Secretary Amos Malupenga and Tourism and Arts acting Permanent Secretary Monde Gwaba.
During the tour, Mr Malupenga urged the media to be patriotic and highlight the efforts being made to prepare for the UN tourism conference as opposed to playing a prophet of doom role.
Going forward in 2013, the Government has already given the UNWTO conference a major boost by allocating a substantial budget towards the event and also introduced tax incentives to support the preparations.
In his 2013 Budget address to the National Assembly on October 12, 2012, Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda announced that he had provided K32.3 billion for tourism marketing and promotion, with particular focus on the UNWTO conference.
Further, Mr Chikwanda suspended duty on new motor vehicles for tourism enterprises that offer transport services and on new articles and equipment needed to furnish or refurbish accommodation and catering facilities for businesses licensed as tourism enterprises.
These measures would go a long way in fostering development of the tourism industry and encourage local tourism before and after the general assembly.
Clearly, preparations for the August 2013 UNWTO general assembly have gained momentum and the year 2013 is set to start on a brighter note.
Zambians now look forward to speedy completion of various projects being undertaken ahead of the event.
The conference would not only benefit the country in terms of boosting foreign exchange earnings but it would also attract more investments and increase tourist arrivals to Livingstone and other parts of Zambia for many years to come.