By Norma Tsopo
Poor connectivity is hindering the growth of the country’s tourism industry in spite calls to improve travel infrastructure and allow tourists to access any site of their choice with minimal hustle.
The absence of air connectivity to the Eastern Highlands which is struggling to attract visitors despite having world-class sites like Mt Inyangani, Vumba mountains, Chimanimani mountains and Mtarazi Falls – the second tallest in Africa, has been a matter of long-standing discussions with not much headway being made.
Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA), however, has said it has kept up its efforts.
Sugar Chagonda, the agency’s spokesperson said they are hopeful for a breakthrough soon.
“There is need for air connectivity so we are looking into that and we are quite optimistic that in the shortest possible time a solution might be found so that eastern highlands can reclaim its yesteryear position.
“It used to host a lot of traffic but the numbers have dropped because of a number of challenges one on which is the issue of accessibility.”
Air connectivity has been an emotive issue among Manicaland tourism players who have been calling on government to demilitarise Grand Reef Airport 22 kilometres west of Mutare in an effort to make the resort province more accessible to international tourists.
Former Inns of Zimbabwe chairperson Gordon Addams repeated the call this year arguing that accessing the eastern province by road was inhibiting the potential growth of the local tourism sector as it was both expensive and time consuming.
“We wish if Grand Reef can be demilitarised and considered for transformation into an international airport we are sure the benefits for Manicaland will be very big,” Addams said.
The nearest airport to Mutare is more than 260 kilometres away in Harare.
Local players believe that the province’s potential is not being fully utilised as it is dotted with many world class tourist destinations.
Right in the eastern border city is Cecil Kopje and Thompson’s Vlei a 1700 hectare nature reserve, only 3 kilometres from the city centre.
In the south-east of the city is the Vumba Mountains, steep green “mountains of the mist”, clothed in indigenous forest.
To the east is the awesome 760 m tall Mtarazi Falls, in Honde Valley with the valley’s scenery itself another attraction. Mahwemasike, meaning “planted rocks” are also of great interest in the valley with a lot of tourists coming in to have a picture of the rocks.Mt Inyangani, the tallest mountain is less than 100 kilometres from Mutare.
The country’s longest mountain range – Chimanimani Mountains, the classy Bridal Veil Falls and Makwaha Forest in Vimba are only a few hours from the eastern border city.
Improving its accessibility will also give visitor access to Nyanyadzi Hot Springs and Chipinge’s world famous big tree in Chirinda Forest.
But international tourists are just a mere trickle and a long way from the sector’s glory days.
Chagonda said while air connectivity was being looked at his organisation was also working with the ministry of transport to ensure that all the country’s tourist attractions were accessible.
“The issue of linking tourism products is not only affecting the eastern highlands… we are working in collaboration with tourism enabler service providers. We cannot talk of accessibility without making an effort to work with the ministry of transport.”
We want to make sure that the roads that link eastern highlands and other attractions are quite accessible so we have engaged the relevant authorities.
Insiders of the tourism industry have earlier in the year claimed that most of the region’s sites including Mtarazi Falls were rendered completely inaccessible because of the La Nina induced torrential rains that hit the country last summer.
Lack of proper road infrastructure has left many tourist attractions across the country poorly visited by outsiders as tour operators could not confidently market them to their clients, tourism players said.