Zambia is one of the three top fastest-growing tourism destinations in the world, alongside Namibia and China, according to United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Secretary General Taleb Rifai, who made the statement in a recent interview with the BBC.
Chilu Chibanda, Zambia's permanent representative to the UNWTO, concurred, saying the tourism industry is flourishing in the Southern African nation. He mentioned that the government had helped grow the Zambian tourism industry by implementing initiatives, such as the Kaza-Univisa (a common visa available for travel in the region) and the online visa application. But while tour operators in the U.S. and Africa say that Zambia is a phenomenal destination, they warn that there is still some work to do before the destination will see any significant increase in tourism numbers.
Craig Smith, managing director of New Frontiers, explains that Zambia still doesn't have the same brand recognition as a destination that Botswana does in the U.S., despite the fact that Zambia offers a truly authentic and rewarding game experience as well as pristine and breathtaking scenery in areas like Lower Zambezi. This lack of destination knowledge is a big challenge in selling the country, according to Smith.
Julien Perreard, general manager for Southern Africa Travel, agrees and explains that most interest in Zambia comes from return safari travelers, people who are looking for a "raw" Africa experience. Says Perreard: "We often find that clients have not heard much about Zambia. They have limited time and want to see Cape Town, the Kruger Park and Victoria Falls and perhaps go on safari in one of Botswana's well-known reserves."
One area of Zambia that has gained considerable brand knowledge is Livingstone and the Victoria Falls. Perreard explains that most first-time visitors to Africa immediately associate Zambia with the Victoria Falls.
However, Smith warns that there has been some movement away from the Livingstone side of the Falls to the Zimbabwe side. He says: "The Zimbabwean side has a greater offering of lower-priced B&B establishments as opposed to the majority fully inclusive properties on the Zambian side."
Price is an obstacle when it comes to selling Zambia in general. According to Smith, areas such as South Luangwa, Lower Zambezi and Kafue are highly seasonal. He says: "This in turn contributes to the relatively high cost of running camps and lodges, which are similar in pricing to better-known Botswana camps."
Anouk Zijlma, a consultant for African Portfolio, agrees that Zambia is a relatively expensive option as a result of the cost of international flights and the fact that the seasonality of the camps means that they have to make their money in a much smaller window of time than other destinations like the Kruger or the Okavango Delta, where camps generally operate year-round. She says: "This also means that Zambia is not often 'on sale' in the green season, so there are perhaps less opportunities for those who are more intrepid but just don't have the budget."
Another obstacle is flight access. Marcia Gordon, president and co-founder of Extraordinary Journeys, explains that the connections to the more remote areas in Zambia are also often problematic. She says that it is very frustrating that travelers have to route back through Lusaka, the Zambian capital, to combine different national parks via scheduled flights, such as the Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa. She says: "It makes for long days of traveling, lots of flying, and the flights are still fairly expensive. Private charters are available, but that is not realistic for many people."
Perreard agrees, saying that flying from the U.S. can bring about some logistical problems. "To go on safari in Zambia, travelers need to first fly to Johannesburg, then Lusaka, then on to the reserve," he says, adding that the high cost of internal flights also adds to the overall price tag of a Zambian safari.
Zijlma explains that if there were more regularly scheduled charter flights from Livingstone to the Lower Zambezi or to South Luangwa, it may also be easier for less experienced travel agents to put together a good itinerary for their clients. "As of now it's a difficult thing to figure out how to get from A to B without going in and out of Lusaka," she says.
Mariska Yntema, product developer for Jenman Safaris, reports that Zambia is working on these obstacles. She says that access to Lusaka has greatly improved, and a lot of work has also been done on the development of the roads in partnership with the Chinese government.
Tour operators agree that both the newly introduced online visa procedures as well as the Univisa will definitely help boost tourism to the country. Gordon explains the univisa has been welcome for visitors to the Victoria Falls who want to see both the Zimbabwean and the Zambian side of the falls.
According to Gordon, the feedback from U.S. travelers with regards to the Univisa is that it is a "very smooth" process. She says: "We have discovered that information on the Univisa was not prominently displayed anywhere on arrival, except for a couple of leaflets lying around the immigration area, and that you have to ask for the Univisa to get it. As a result, we tell our clients to specifically request the Univisa it if they are planning on visiting both countries, and once they do, the process is easy and smooth."
Perreard agrees, saying, "Getting a Univisa is as easy as getting any standard visa on arrival, as long as travelers are aware that they need to request it on arrival and not assume that they will get it."