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Rethinking domestic tourism

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For many years, the hospitality, travel, tourism and events industries made the world go round and airplanes dominated the skies. That’s until they became a mode of transfer of the novel coronavirus. Movement between and within countries was restricted. National economies and the wider global economy have been in decline since then.

Although Zambia kept its borders open, the number of international visitors entering the country has declined sharply. The first three months of 2020 saw a drop of over 14,000 international visitors, according to research by the International Growth Centre.

The travel and tourism industry accounted for 10.4 percent of global GDP in 2019 but is expected to contract by 20 to 30 percent in 2020, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

In Zambia most of the exclusive tour operators who depend on foreign tourists are struggling to cope with the shutdown of global tourism and unfortunately some have had no choice but to close. Some tour operators argue that their colleagues in other countries in the region work under better conditions and that it is difficult to promote domestic tourism in Zambia due to the taxation system they are subject to.

As COVID-19 rages on, Zambia’s tourism industry is looking less profitable and it will never be the same again. The question is how best to market the country’s dwindling tourism potential now and after the pandemic, especially among domestic tourists.

A renowned tour operator in South Luangwa put it this way: “The taxes we pay are huge. For instance, we pay ten to 15 percent service charges to our staff, we have to pay 16 percent VAT to Zambia Revenue Authority and we have to pay 1.5 percent tourism levy to the Tourism Development Fund, which all adds to the high costs of operations. You add transport costs as it is nine hours’ drive from here to Lusaka making it difficult to stay afloat under domestic tourism.”

Radisson Blu Hotel General Manager Johan Klang said most of his guests, both local and international, are business professionals drawn to Lusaka for work. With economic activities in Zambia and abroad taking major hits this has meant fewer guests. “It’s been a difficult year with very few guests and some days we have been empty. However, the light at the end of the tunnel is getting a little bit stronger but it’s still very far away,” Klang said.

Domestic tourism has regularly been overlooked by local tour operators but now with international visits drying up thanks to COVID-19, travel agents, tour operators, hotels and lodges, among others, are now forced to re-orient their marketing towards locals in order to sustain their operations.

Without the usual number of international tourists many tour operators countrywide are now struggling to survive while others have closed down. “…at the moment, Zambians generally do not have the buying power to afford the facilities on offer. We have tried to scale down our rates in light of the effects of COVID-19 but as it is, they don’t come through and it’s quite sad that our local tourists can’t afford to spend for a holiday,” Sigo Adventures and Tours Executive Director Joe Walter said.

Some commentators contend that domestic tourism hasn’t thrived for a long time in Zambia because the act of exploring one’s own country for pleasure is not entrenched in the culture and most people were not raised to appreciate the value of going on a holiday. There is a noted increase in the number of local tourists attending music and beer festivals, as well as other social and cultural activities. However, under the new normal and social distancing guidelines it is difficult for tour operators to benefit from this at the moment. Having said this, experts maintain that promoting domestic tourism, which includes events such as weddings, matebetos, chilanga mulilos, traditional ceremonies, music festivals and conferences are vital to sustaining the industry.

Commenting on President Edgar Lungu recently announcing the partial reopening of bars and nightclubs (they had been closed for a period of six months to reduce the spread of coronavirus), Livingstone Tourism Association President Rodney Sikumba said, “We welcome the presidential directive as the idea will help resuscitate domestic tourism. Livingstone has really struggled in the sense that bars and restaurants were closed and basically the city was dead but now we will see life gradually getting back to normal, a plus for domestic tourism.”

Zambia Tourism Agency Director of Marketing Mwabashinke Nkulunkusa stated that owners of exclusive tourist facilities that target international tourists need to revise their tourism rates in order to accommodate the domestic market.

“If you look at most of the facilities now, be it in South Luangwa, Lower Zambezi, Kafue National Park where most of these facilities that target international exclusive markets are located, you will find that they have drastically reduced their prices and some by more than 50 percent in order to attract domestic tourists. This is the only way they can sustain and pull through the storm of COVID-19 which has really caused havoc in the tourism industry,” Nkulunkusa told Nkwazi.

With virtually no international tourist arrivals since March 2020 due to travel restrictions and subdued domestic tourist activity following the ravaging effect of COVID-19, government has put in place relief measures such as time to pay agreement covering income tax and value added tax.

In his 2021 national budget presentation dubbed, “Stimulate Economic Recovery and Build Resilience to Safeguard Livelihoods and Protect the Vulnerable,” Finance Minister Bwalya Ng’andu announced additional relief measures that government will implement to revive the sector.

“To resuscitate the tourism sector and promote local tourism, I propose the following measures: Reduce corporate income tax rate to 15 percent from 35 percent on income earned by hotels and lodges on accommodation and food services; Suspend import duty on safari game viewing motor vehicles, tourist buses and coaches; Suspend license of renewal fees paid by hotels and lodges; Suspend the retention fees paid by tourism enterprises; and Suspend registration fees for hotel managers,” Dr Ng’andu stated.

The finance minister expressed optimism that domestic tourism has started to rise and encouraged citizens to continue supporting the tourism industry while observing the COVID-19 health guidelines.

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