Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Where have all the tourists gone?

A previous post which I published in September 2014 highlighted the plight of tourist arrivals to this vast country on our eastern seaboard. Now in August 2015 I take another look at Mozambique and need to beg the question, “what is going on and where are the tourists”? Much can be said of this situation as tourist numbers continue to remain low and in a lot of cases unsustainable for many of the lodges along this beautiful coastline. At the end of the civil war in 1993 (22 years ago) interest was once again stimulated by Mozambique’s attractive coastline and investors began exploring Mozambique. In these early days many of these adventurers were from South Africa and Zimbabwe and the country had little or no infrastructure as a result of the 25 years of civil war. These pioneers persevered, negotiated land, paid their dues and lodges began springing up along this pristine coastline. Most of the development is today still in 5 tourist nodes along the coast namely Maputo, Ponta do Ouro, Inhambane, Vilanculos/ Bazaruto Archipelago and Pemba/ Quirimbas Archipelago. As time went by international interest grew resulting in multi-million dollar investments in upmarket and luxurious lodges. This investment was based on faith in a growing tourist economy as well as a belief in the support of the Mozambique tourism authorities, national airline and a stable government.
A large percentage of the tourists visiting Mozambique are South African who either fly in or self-drive. Let’s deal with each of these modes of transport on their own merit.
Flying is definitely the quickest and direct flights from O.R Tambo are available to Maputo, Inhambane, Vilanculos and Pemba with private air transfers to the islands. The national carrier LAM monopolises all these routes (I’m sure I’ve heard this about another airline…oh yes, SAA) and of course dictates to the market. The airline was blacklisted by the EU in 2011 which has made it very difficult for tour operators to offer fully inclusive packaged tours via ORTIA to their source markets. Many of the international tourists visiting Mozambique came on packaged holidays which also included South Africa and even Botswana hence the reason to use ORTIA as a hub. Other airlines such as SA Airlink then started flying the Maputo, Vilanculos and Pemba routes however much of this interest was also stimulated by the burgeoning oil and gas industry. This has now resulted in what I can only call greed as airfares are mostly exorbitant.
A Flight between O.R Tambo and Inhambane or Vilanculos return will cost a little under R6000 per person and if you need a 15 minute air transfer to the islands add on another R5000 per person. LAM are also not referred to as “Late And Maybe” for no reason as they have become notorious for late, delayed and sometimes cancelled flights leaving passengers stranded. I once spent 6 hours at Inhambane airport waiting for my flight back to ORTIA only to be hauled off after dark on a flight to Maputo and then back to ORTIA the following morning. I also remember a similar experience in Pemba…
Driving via the Komatipoort border post is now a lot more pleasant than it used to be although it can still be a painful experience particularly over peak holiday periods and long weekends. Hot, dusty and with corrupt Mozambique officials willing to overlook anything for a dollar or 2. Once you’re through the border be vigilant.
The police are everywhere as they pounce on timid tourists for completely unfounded spot fines. Visit the Moz Forum Facebook page and you will find regular comments about these corrupt officials extorting money out of law abiding tourists. All these issues have been raised with tourism authorities over the years with a view to educating the police, customs and other relevant government officials as to the value of tourism however this seems to have all come to nought. On a positive note the drive up the EN1 is scenic and interesting and of course arriving at your chosen beach destination exciting to say the least. See my previous post on this topic titled “Mozambique Musings”. Most of the meaningful marketing has been done by individual lodges as they realised the need to invest in pro-active marketing and pass on their passion for a new, unique and pristine destination. Over the years this resulted in Mozambique getting onto the map in terms of leisure travel, scuba diving and deep sea fishing. The Mozambique tourism authority INATUR does promote the country however this is a much more generic approach and also aimed at both leisure and business travellers so it is once again up to the individuals to dig deep and spend wisely on their marketing as best they can. Dealing with government and the cumbersome bureaucracy is draining as the rules and regulations are ever-changing resulting in fines being imposed all the time for anything deemed irregular. These fines can sometimes be almost crippling in their severity and produce a very negative sentiment rather than the opposite of updating the lodge owners in terms of changes and updates to all the legal and financial requirements. Of course we need to also consider the political situation which since local elections in 2013 and general elections in 2014 have led to a certain amount of discourse between Frelimo and Renamo. This has led to skirmishes, attacks on vehicles and unrest in certain areas of the country. When this happens countries such as the UK and USA do not hesitate to simply put out a blanket ban and travel advisories telling their citizens not to visit the country. Local South African tabloids are also quick to pounce on to a topic of local interest such as this and cancellations follow very quickly for many lodges. The biggest source market for inbound tourism to Mozambique is South Africa and this brings us to the hard truth. Mozambique has based the value of its currency, the Meticais, on the US Dollar making it more and more expensive for South Africans to visit the country and who by nature are adventurous as the intrigue, excitement and expectation of visiting this largely untouched coastline brought them across the borders in their droves. However the cost of travel has now reached a barrier caused by long distances, expensive airfares and high cost of purchasing food and beverages in Mozambique. Notwithstanding the ever escalating cost of living South Africans are also having to face.   Most of the produce and supplies available at the lodges is still, after 20 years, imported from South Africa and becomes expensive when transport and taxes are added. The drive from Johannesburg to Inhambane is almost 1300 kilometres and with the cost of fuel becomes another hindrance. Then we take into account the cost of bribes we need to beg the question again, “Why go there”?
Other destinations can also be very competitive in terms of cost as well as value for money. These include Thailand, Malaysia as well as Zanzibar. Aren’t there good beaches closer to home? Isn’t there really good diving along our Natal coastline? See my piece on scuba diving at Sodwana Bay as well as other reviews on my blog. Isn’t it cheaper to holiday at home in SA and the answer is simply, YES it is. It’s easier, cheaper, more tourist friendly and more accessible. For self-catering it is also a lot cheaper and easier buying your supplies as you need them from a local supermarket rather than hauling a week’s supply of groceries to your destination. So in closing let’s just say Mozambique can be a great destination however the powers that be need to recognize the value of inbound tourism and has got its work cut out if tourism is to survive and prosper (and again I’ve heard this recently about our local SA market). When will AFRICA learn…?

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