What’s it all about?
Protea Hotels announced plans in July 2009 to build a 144-bed hotel on the banks of the Lower Zambezi within the Chiawa Game Management Area (GMA). The site identified for the project sits 500m across the Zambezi River from the World Heritage site of Mana Pools National Park. Heralded as a 12 month development, the project was expected to employ in the region of 100 people, almost matching the level of employment provided by all safari operators currently working in the Lower Zambezi combined, bringing significant benefits to the local area.
What happened then?
The plans were met by a storm of protest from local and international operators and tourism industry representatives, with concerns raised over the size and proposed site for the new development.
Operators and community representatives in the area stated that they would not object to the development if it took place outside the eastern GMA and closer to the Chiawa community bordering the GMA, with a far lesser impact on wildlife.
There were reported claims from Protea representatives that the community had approved the current site, amid on-going reassurances that the hotel chain would do everything in its power to consult with all stakeholders.
Most operators argued that the double-storey hotel, if built on the site currently proposed, would compromise the unspoiled wilderness appeal of the Chiawa GMA and the adjoining Lower Zambezi National Park.
Currently there are just 136 commercial beds available in the GMA provided by 12 camps and lodges along the river. The biggest lodge in the area has just 28 beds, the maximum the General Management Plan for the area allows.
The new 144-bed hotel would double this overnight, arguably changing the high-value, low-impact tourism for which the Lower Zambezi is internationally renowned
What happened next?
• 16 April. It was reported on the ATTA newswire that Protea had withdrawn their Lower Zambezi Project.
• 20 May. At a meeting at Chiawa a Protea Hotels representative went on record as saying that they had withdrawn the planning application but still planned to go ahead with the project
• 15 June. ATTA hosted a debate in London at which strong concerns and negative views from within the industry were voiced for the future implications for the area and the long term sustainability of the Zambian tourism industry as a whole.
Is there an alternative?
Early suggestions were put forward for an alternative location for the project, 10 to 15km upstream closer to Chirundu. “It’s closer to the labour force, and the power and road network. Building here would benefit the community even more and spare the Chiawa GMA’s integrity as a wildlife destination,” commented one UK tour operator.
What Protea are now saying
A statement from Protea Hotels issued in May said
“the company stands by its decision to withdraw from an application for development of a proposed hotel in the Lower Zambezi region. Having engaged in a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and taken cognizance of the concerns raised, Protea Hospitality Group South Africa has made it clear no further action will be taken without the benefit of absolute clarity pertaining to environmental impact.”
Protea Hotels Zambia chairman, Mark O’Donnell, was quoted in June as saying that Zambia’s economy can only grow if more people are in the formal sector of employment.
And other comments
The Zambezi Society in Simbabwe has asked for a trans-boundary Management Plan, saying
“We wish to ensure that the type of development that takes place does not destroy or undermine the valuable biodiversity and wilderness qualities that the Zambezi River has received global recognition for. We believe that all developments on either side of the Zambezi River should be carried out in accordance with Management Plan recommendations which have been agreed with all the relevant stakeholders.”
Fears of a Zambian boycott by the UK travel industry have been raised, with operators questioning the long term impact of such a project.
One ATTA UK tour operator commented
“Should we not conclude that aspects of the Zambian experience – for example authenticity – are among the factors which compel visitors to fall in love with the country and that therefore, any ill-conceived, large-scale developments with conference rooms and scant regard for blending into the environment, would pose a serious threat to the very factors which attract people to the destination in the first place. The heart and soul of Zambia should not be up for sale or to be sullied,”
Local safari operators also supported this view, with one saying:
“This issue has far wider reaching implications in setting a precedent for the granting of similar future planning applications. Initial concerns, apart from the obvious environmentally disastrous effects would be that they are able somehow to circumvent normal planning procedures.”
In a Hotel & Restaurant magazine feature in June, Colin Bell of Great Plains was quoted :
“Protea should be extremely grateful that there was that muted outcry that caused them to reflect and withdraw. If they had gone ahead, I believe that Protea would have felt the full effect of the biggest-ever consumer and trade boycott in Africa travel history and their brand would have been immeasurably damaged.”
On 3rd June 2010, the International Coordinating Council of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme declared Simbabwe‘s Middle Zambezi Valley, an area stretching over approximately 40,000 km2, a World Biosphere Reserve.
The Zambezi Society has urged the relevant authorities in Zambia to help safeguard the future of valuable Zambezi biodiversity by making similar applications to the United Nations body on their side of the Zambezi River. Pressure is mounting both in Simbabwe, Zambia and the UK for there to be greater consultation with due consideration of the implications for the world biosphere reserve and the future of the Zambian tourism industry.
A solution needs to be found with the involvement of all stakeholders to ensure the way is paved for a sustainable future for the country’s natural heritage and tourism industry as well as tackling issues such as local employment.
Source: ATTAK Newswire: 3152 – ATTA briefing- Lower Zambezi Development