By Kenneth Matimaire
MUTARE ― Industry, commerce and political players in the eastern region have piled pressure on government to construct a standard airport in the province to resuscitate the region’s tourism.
Mutare is the country’s fourth largest city and the capital of the Manicaland province, which has a number of tourist attractions. These range from Nyanga’s Mtarazi Falls, the second largest in Africa; Mt Nyangani, the country’s highest mountain; Bvumba Mountains in Vumba; Hot Springs; Birchenough Bridge; and Bridal Veil Falls in Chimanimani, among a host of resorts.
However, while Victoria Falls and Kariba are heavily marketed by government, with a strong footprint on the world tourism grid, the same cannot be said about the Eastern Highlands, despite their capacity to attract international tourists. A cross-section of players in the province said the region had failed to capitalise on its vast tourists attractions largely because of the absence of a modern airport. The province has several aerodrome strips in most districts such as Chimanimani and Chipinge.
Mutare has an idle aerodrome airstrip situated in Sakubva high density suburb and the Grand Reef Airbase used by the military. Tourists drive 275 kilometres from Harare. They have no alternative to fly into the eastern border city. Statistics from hospitality players indicate that 90 percent of resort tours in the province are from domestic visitors, with the balance consisting of foreign nationals. The hotel occupancy is also said to be hovering around 40 percent for most of the hotels and lodges in the province.
The perception by industry, commerce and politicians is that Mutare is the odd one out since the major cities such as Harare, Bulawayo, Gweru and Masvingo, the fifth largest city, have airports. In fact, even small towns such as Chiredzi, Hwange, Kariba and Vic Falls are far ahead of Manicaland despite the province’s vast and diverse tourism endowments. Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe Calls for Manicaland airport intensify and Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce provincial chairperson, Clive Chinwada, said the absence of direct flights into the Eastern Highlands is bad for regional tourism growth.
“It makes it cumbersome to sell these destinations if accessibility remains an issue. We think it is very critical to improve the infrastructure of strategic tourist destinations. We need access to all the tourism sites. In Manicaland right now, one of the biggest efforts done by industry players on the ground is the resuscitation of two airstrips. We should be able to run chartered planes from here to Harare or even Victoria Falls,” said Chinwada, who is also the Holiday Inn Mutare general manager. Some industry players have proposed the upgrading of the Mutare aerodrome airstrip, de-militarisation of 1 243 metres Grand Reef Airbase or the construction of a new, modern airport.
Troutbeck Inn general manager, Charlton Chimbiri, suggested that government should spruce up aerodrome airstrips and consider the use of chartered planes. Chimbiri said tourism players in the eastern region have spruced up two airstrips in strategic resorts in a bid to improve accessibility and boost their businesses. “We have beautiful resorts in Manicaland. I will single out Nyanga. We have Nyangombe Falls, Mt Nyangani, Mtarazi Falls, which is one of the biggest attractions in the country but all these areas are inaccessible. It’s a challenge for tourists to visit them and it’s bad for the sector,” he said.
Provincial Affairs Minister, Mandiitawepi Chimene, called for the construction of a modern airport, arguing that it defied logic that government set up an international airport in Vic Falls to market one resort while Manicaland, which had vast attractions, had none. She challenged the Ministry of Tourism to prioritise the construction of an airport in the eastern highlands if their concerns to develop the country’s tourism sector were genuine. “We say Manicaland is the most beautiful province in the country and others say its Victoria Falls but is that a province? Here in Manicaland, we can take you places; there are plenty of resorts but you are only focused on just one place (Vic Falls).
And then you set up a very beautiful airport to market just one place yet the province which has many attractions uses the road. That is wrong. If we want to talk tourism, you can’t do so without Manicaland. But our Ministry of Tourism is preoccupied with Vic Falls. Just change your name to Vic Falls Ministry then,” she recently told industry players. “We need an airport here to get the tourism sector ticking. We are losing out on many tourists from Mozambique and Harare who are eager to come here but they are reluctant to use the road. It’s too far.”
The Minister of Transport and Infrastructure Development, Jorum Gumbo, has said government was aware of the calls to construct an airport in Mutare. Gumbo, however, said government would first renovate Buffalo Range in Masvingo before considering Mutare. An impatient business community in Manicaland, which includes regional chapters of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe and Affirmative Action Group, have offered to look for investors to construct the airport, provided government grants the project a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) status. “I am backing the vision of commercialising the Grand Reef Military Airbase as a Public-Private partnership and Special Economic Zone project. An airport will be a game changer here in Manicaland. It will boost tourist arrivals as well as exports,” said the chairperson of the Mutare Airport campaign, Joseph Sanhanga.