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Zambia’s Minister of Tourism Rodney Sikumba eyes international tourism

We would like to know what exactly are you, the other branches of the government and the various stakeholders doing to increase Zambia’s visibility to the world?

Well thank you very much for having me on this interview. And I think it’s very exciting. Zambia is going through very exciting times, obviously with the new government that is in place now, as you rightly mentioned, the tourism sector has been earmarked as one of the economic sectors in our new dawn government and, and how we’ve identified it as, as one of the economic sectors in the new dawn government.

And giving it its utmost priority is because we’ve realized that tourism among other sectors is what we’d like to call a job bridge sector. Job bridge sector in the sense that it’ll create a number of opportunities for the boys and girls who are looking for opportunities to work. We do realize that government alone cannot be responsible for employing the many Zambians that we have.

We have in excess of 20 million Zambians today, so we’re looking at every opportunity to get to employ them. So tourism is one of them over and above the other sector, such as mining, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and obviously manufacturing. Now what we are looking at here is how best can we contribute to GDP, making the tourism sector a more than $1 billion revenue spinner. And that is the target that we’re looking at. So, in essence, what we’re saying here is, pre-covid days, we have seen an opportunity that tourism has had in terms of having to push this particular agenda of making tourism a sector that would be to be able to contribute positive to the GDP. Our 2019 numbers, this is a pre-covid number, we’re looking at contribution of about 7.2% to the national GDP and we are short, we’re probably about 800 million or there about, we’re short into getting a billion, but that is something that is attainable.

Now post-covid, we realized that obviously the dynamics changed. We had to see how best we could really rework and, and reawaken the tourism sector in Zambia and what we’ve seen right now is gave us an opportunity to see how best we could recast our ways of having to market tourism in this particular country.

Now, there’s two things that come to the forefront here. One of the things that comes to the front, first of all is, is destination marketing. How are we, how will we best sell Zambia as, as a preferred destination in the country? We have gone around the world today to just figure out exactly to just take the pulse, on whether the world knows where Zambia is, but unfortunately, we seem to be getting a bit of a few mixed feelings.

Most people would not know, they’ll just club Zambia as one of the southern African countries and not actually specifically say Zambia. And also in terms of destination, we actually realize that Zambia is what in the sector they would call an “add-on”. When somebody says, “look, I’m going to Africa”, if they’re going to safari, they’ll probably mention a nation, country A and country B. And then, when they come to country A or B, then they’ll say what else? Then somebody will say, maybe, “oh, go to Zambia!” Then “oh, there Zambia as well!”, So we are looking at an opportunity of making Zambia the primary destination. So how are we going to do that?

Number one, I think we need to look at the basics. The basics we’re talking about here is, first of all, we’re selling Zambia to the Zambians, and that’s how we started selling our, our domestic packages. Selling Zambia to Zambians would allow us to be able to market Zambia better. There’s no better person to market Zambia than the Zambian themselves.

So the moment you get, we get to appreciate our destination as Zambians, I think it becomes much, much easier for us to tell it the story outside the country. The next thing that we’ve actually done at the end is that we’ve, we’ve looked at how to engage, obviously international, destination management companies, which will be able to now sell Zambia as a package and more so as a country, as from the government perspective, we have put in place a robust team of tourism at attaches across a various embassies that will be able to help us sell the destination together with the heads of mission. We’ve just come out of the 2023 travel in DBA in Durban, and obviously that is one of the opportunities that we’ve had to ensuring that we start selling the destination.

The whole idea is people need to understand that Zambia exists, and also to say, “look where if Zambia exists, what opportunities exist in Zambia?”, and what we saw at the last Tourism endeavor, which won us a platinum award. At this is endeavor for the large stand, which I think is, is a great achievement.

Has actually showed across the section team of operators from Zambia, from the big hotels themselves, all the way through to the SMEs, tourism properties, budding tourism to operators who are looking at getting into the space of tourism. Now that in itself has sent signals to the rest of the world to say, look, “Zambia is back in the Champions League”

Zambia is back into reclaiming its space in the travel and tourism sector. So those are some of the opportunities that we put in place. Now from the business side in terms of making Zambia as a preferred destination, we’ve looked at opportunities of how we could invite investors into the sector now for a very long time.

You’ve found that we have 20 national parks in Zambia today. We have over 4,000 heritage sites in Zambia today. Now with all those particular natural resources that we have, I’ll probably say they are not fully sweated. That asset is not sweated purely because we have not had any investment appetite in those areas.

Now what that simply means is that if we are going to bring an investment in that area, what will it take for a private investor to come in to actually come and invest? So first things first, the government has recognized that we need to be, we need to create a catalyst for the investor to come in.

So as creating a catalyst for the investor to come in, we are saying, here, come and invest in Zambia. One of the better opportunities that you have in Zambia is that one, it’s a free country, stable economy, and you can be guaranteed that your investment will be secured, however, shape or form it comes in.

Number two, we’ve opened up our country for both leisure and business stories. So, in essence, most of you who had challenges in coming to the country, you can come into the country by just by collecting your visa at the port of entry. Those are opportunities that are there. We have also extended an opportunity for foreign investors to partner with locals so that the incentives that accrue to the local partner in Zambia, we’ll be extended to you, the foreign investor. And this, these are some of the things we’re talking about. Tax moratorium, we’re talking about access to land, access to facilities. Those are some of the things that we put in place now in those areas that I’ve just mentioned about. We have an opportunity for anyone to actually invest in those natural resources so that we create a bigger pool of facilities and opportunities for the investor. The tourism sector is a huge cake. A huge cake, which obviously I strongly feel we don’t seem to be eating it, both as local as well as international players, but I think it’s one of the things that we’re looking at.

Thanks to the massive increase in private companies and competitive deals with international firms that you were mentioning, a few of those mixed with new partnerships like the MoU with Emirates that connects Dubai with Lusaka via direct routes, do you think this has helped draw Zambia’s potential internationally and also how do you plan to keep growing this momentum? Are there any other partnerships that are in the works for the future? 

Absolutely. I think the long and short of that is that we are looking at getting to partner with people who’ve been to certain places before us.

And what that simply means is that if somebody has done it before and we have actually seen it work. We actually get on board, and it works because we’ll have a reference point to that effect. Now with respect to the partnership agreement that we signed with Emirates, that is one of the many partnerships that we’re going to have with the airlines across the world.

Now, the partnership in itself simply means that, number one: the key ingredient is that that airline needs to fly into Zambia. That’s number one. Number two is, is that that airline, we will have what we probably call reciprocal marketing to making sure that they market the destination on whatever opportunity that they have, be it In-flight magazines, information, TV advertisements, whatever it is. Then also, what we want to see is in our quest to create more connectivity in our country. It is our desire here to make Zambia a hub for the southern Africa, purely because number one, we are land linked, so if we get long haul flies flying into Zambia, then we should be able to redistribute them across our 10, 11 neighbors. Now, if we get to have those ones, currently we have Emirates, we have Qatar, Kenya Airways, Ethiopian, and, and those are probably what I call the, the longer haul flights that we have around. And then obviously with the regional flights where we, we have El Malawi and we have Turkish Airlines. TAAG, should be resuming hopefully before the end of the month. And, ultimately, that is our route into Europe through Lisbon and probably another opportunity for us to get into the Caribbean. So those are some of the opportunities that we’re looking into now.

Connectivity still remains a challenge for our destination, and those are some of the things which I strongly feel that by us making leaps and bounds, it become easy for us to, to actually attract as many airlines as we possibly can. Now, I must also make mention then that in the last couple of months, we have been very aggressive to actually talk to most of these airlines.

Not so long ago a team was in Europe, we were meeting with Eurowings and a few other airlines to see how best we could get airlines into the country. In October this year, we should be in Istanbul, Turkey to see how we could convince other airlines as they meet for the World’s Roads Meeting in Istanbul, Turkey.

Now, obviously this is a start of a bigger conversation that we’re going to have in the sense that once we have to a discussion with these airlines, we should be able to see 2024 taking a different turn altogether in terms of the takeoff and I like the aspect that we’re talking about, Zambia, a nation that is about to take off and that is what we want to see; a lot of heavy lifting has been going on in the last couple of months, with the last few months to see how best we could put all our ducks in a row. We have had a challenge where this specific direction hasn’t been there and, and with the leadership of his excellence, Mr.Hakainde Hichilema who has actually categorically and made it very clear to say hello. The drive for this sector, for the drive for Zambia should be in the hands of the private sector. So we need to create an enabling environment for the private sector of which we have done, and maybe we may not have done it 100%, but I think it is our desire that we actually 100% support the private sector because they have the private motive and the motive itself of being an entrepreneur simply means that they’re going to employ as many people as they possibly can now.

With that, it’s become apparent that as we go for these meetings to talk about connectivity, the various sectors within the government should be able to also speak. So an airline would only come to a destination, not just to uplift people and drop them off, no, but they’re looking at opportunities.

So what are these opportunities? Is it easy to access the country? Number one, is it? Do we have opportunities in that place? Do we have somewhere to sleep? And all those other things, and those are some of the ingredients that we’ve actually put in place so that the moment we go to a negotiating table, that airline wouldn’t have no choice but to say that destination is actually ripe for investment.

How do you think the increase in tourism has spilled over to other areas? Because you were just talking about how much the increase of tourism could benefit everyone. How do you think this increase of tourism and the economy can help Zambia meet its goal of becoming a prosperous middle income nation by 2030?

Well, I think also what you realize is that we have an agenda. And as a UPND government, we currently have a five year mandate of which we will strongly recontest in 2026 to just make sure that all this foundation that we’re laying is actually achieved.

Now, I did mention in my preamble that this government has identified economic sectors within our government. I probably have said to just mention that we’re talking about mining, we’re talking about agriculture, we’re talking about tourism, energy, infrastructure and must also include green economy and environment because we are looking at having to look at the Green bank and see how best we could sweat our asset yet again in terms of accessing the green bonds. Now the whole idea here is that these particular sectors need to speak to each other to ensure that whatever we’re trying to achieve, we’re towing the same line. Gone are the days where the Minister of Tourism would actually plan on his own so that they do it, and then you find that we’ll be working in silos.

We don’t do that in the UPND government. What we’ve seen today in our government is that we’ve cross referenced what everybody else is doing. Cross referencing simply means that there’s, there’s the whole aspect of having to align with each other, even the laws themselves that govern. Most of our mandates are laws that needs to not be in conflict with the next particular ministry, and that is exactly what the government has been doing for the last one and a half years, or there about, and, and you see the, the challenge that you’d find is you actually get to inherit some of these laws.

But if the laws themselves do not speak to your transformation agenda, then you have a dead law. So what we’ve done now is to interrogate what is sitting in the main law, which is the supreme law, which is the constitution of Zambia and our various acts, which are sitting within, respective ministries to see how best they interface with the transformation agenda that we as a UPND have, which is the party in government now. Yes, there are certain laws, pieces of legislation that need to be repealed, others thus require amendment, and that is what we’ve been working on. So in terms of spillover effect, once these pieces of legislation are aligned with the transformation agenda, it becomes a whole lot easier for you to see a growth in the various sectors that I’ve just mentioned, and we’re not so far away from the truth.

Most of the issues, what I would like to call the bottlenecks have already been identified. Now we’re just trying to take the cycle so that we understand and we’re not caught snapping that “look, we are abrogating the law”. All we just need to do is just to make sure that we abide by the law and we make sure that any amendment that is done is done correctly.

I wanted to just go a bit more specific into the tourism, there is a Tourism Master Plan 2018-2038. Do you think you could speak a bit about it? What are the end goals of the plan? How do you feel about it at this point?

Okay, so the, the Zambia Tourism Master Plan is what I would like to call the Bible of tourism. And why I call it the Bible of tourism is because it actually looks at the whole spectrum of what my sector has to offer. Okay. Now, I’ll commend the European Union for having for having put in, sorry, just pause it.

So, the Zambian Tourism Master plan, like I mentioned, is a document that was created and put together by a cross-section of team and obviously headed by the European Union. We thank the European Union for having supported us in putting together this document. Now, what is good about this document is that it actually identifies Zambia as as a one whole big piece.

And that piece obviously takes into account the various assets that we have, the various opportunities that we have, and also making sure that the livelihoods of people around that area are actually taken care of. Now I must also bring to your attention that the 20 national parks that I spoke about earlier, which we have as a resource, account for close to 33% of the land mass in this country. So that is what we call a protected area. Now, as such, the bulk of the tourism in Zambia is through the wildlife, the world Flora and fauna, as well as obviously the heritage size that we have, the over 4,000 that I make mention of, including the Victoria Falls, the mighty Victoria Falls.

So the Zambia Tourism Master Plan delved into specifics of what Zambia has, what Zambia needs to do, and the specific tourism development areas that needs to be opened up to ensuring that the asset of Zambia as a tourism destination actually sweated. Now, we have specific areas. Obviously they are zoned it in such a way that we’re looking at the southern side, which is the Livingston area, the Northern Circuit, which is the Casaba Bay area, the east end, which is the parks, central and Northwestern, which obviously predominantly has parks. That in itself has given an indication of where we need to take development.

Now it takes us back to the question that you had to say, look, “what is it that people can possibly do? What are the opportunities now within the Zambia plan?” It has a roadmap of how you need to phase out the development of tourism in this country. Now, yes, that took particular document obviously was coined in 2018.

Obviously times change and I like to call it that it’s a working document. And when I say it’s a working document, simply means that the implementation plan that is spelled out in the master plan can deviate. I always use this example of a pilot. If you are on a plane and then suddenly the pilot notices that there’s so much rain within his flight plan and they’re like, you just need to change your flight plan, change costs.

But obviously, but still going to the same destination. So the only reason why you change your flight plan is because you, there’s a clear and present danger. And for tourism, we’re talking about covid, that that document was done in 2018 and the dynamics after covid have completely changed.

So there’s very all, there’s all these opportunities that we need to rethink and then re-look at what’s specific that we need to change, more so technology, we’re talking about transform Africa. We are embracing technology in the tourism sector and actually what we’ve seen now is that there are certain things that may be out of date because of the changing technology.

So I still maintain that the tourism master plan, very thought out document still needs to be a working document in the sense that times have changed and, and also from our perspective, we were getting into government in 2021. This document was coined as far back as 2018. We’re not stretching it, no. I possibly and firmly believe that it’s a document that we could work with, and if we can work with that particular document and follow this phased out approach on how we’re going to develop the various sites in this country, I think we’re in the right direction.

Are there specific areas or key countries that Zambia is targeting? And, if so, how do you plan on marketing yourselves to them?

What is there now is very interesting. So what we’ve actually identified as a country is what I would like to call the key source markets where we need to draw our tourists from. Now, the statistics that we have, show three particular countries.

Is it three, maybe two. We’re talking about one, Zimbabwe. We’re talking about Tanzania right now. These particular countries are countries which obviously are very huge on traffic in to Zambia. Now, however way you look at it, they, they still go through a border control. And then they pass through. Now, I’ll tell you why you have a lot of those, including DRC.

So these three countries in that particular order are the DRC, Tanzania, then Zimbabwe. Now why am I talking about those three countries? Is because of the logistics, the whole edge. So most of these particular individuals are quote-unquote traders, and truck drivers. So we still account for them as tourists. But the real number one, the real number one is number four which is South Africa.

So South Africa stands out as four in terms of numbers, but is number one in terms of our source market. So if we are going to sell tourism, we get a lot of tourism, high quality, high net worth clients out of South Africa. After South Africa, then we have, the UK after the UK, then we have the US and then we have talk about Germany now. So the question that you’re asking is what specific country are we gonna tap into? So what we’ve deliberately done as a country is to actually look at what we call our non-traditional imports in tourism.

These non-traditional ones are outside what I’ve just mentioned in terms of South Africa, US, UK, Germany, India. What we’re looking at here is how best can we tap into the European market, totally entire Europe. How can we tap into the Chinese market? How can we tap into the Indian market? Now those for, for me, I strongly feel are markets which we have never bothered to I think intentionally get into, to draw business from them.

But I think it’s about time that we actually get to do it. Now, how are we doing that? First of all, what we did was, in November of 2022, we waived visa restrictions for these particular countries that I’ve just mentioned. So you don’t pay any visa fees. You don’t even need to pre-apply for a visa.

You just need to come to the airport. They look at you, you smile, they smile. We stamp your passport and you’re good to go. So you can only imagine that if I got just maybe 0.5% or 1% of the India or China tourist market, I think it’ll tip, of course, it’ll tip the numbers that we’re talking about and it’ll grow. I’m actually sitting at maybe about 1.1, 1.2 million as of now in terms of arrival. These are post covid numbers, but the ambition and the plan is to achieve the 1.5 million mark at the end of the year of 2023, which I strongly feel is getting there, and also to ensuring that I get closer to the billion dollar revenue.

Which I’m quite certain that we’ll be able to achieve that. Now those are some of the markets that we’re looking at. Now, having identified those markets simply means that there’s a lot of work that needs to go into a lot of budget that needs to go into to actually get to do your road trips, your trade shows, your family trips, and all those other things.

We need to identify the big agents who are sitting in those areas, be able to get them into Zambia so that they actually have a firsthand feel of what Zambia is all about. It’s saddening to mention then that there’s certain individuals who just have no clue how Zambia is, what Zambia is all about as much as they want to sell it, but you cannot sell anything that you don’t understand.

So I would like to encourage that once we’re working on our big budget, we should be able to go out there and invite as many agents as you possibly can so that they actually see what Zambia’s all about and then they can be able to sell firsthand packages to the rest of the world.

There’s a global trend in ethical tourism, as people are more than ever conscious about the space and environment around them to respect local cultures, wildlife, and traditions. How does Zambia fit within the topic of ethical tourism, in your opinion?

Well, I think it’s, for starters, like I mentioned, 33% of the land mass is a protected area. So when I talk about protected area, we’re talking about protected in terms of livestock.

Yes, wildlife as well as, the trees of which today, now people are talking about carbon trading, which obviously is the big buzzword. And, I think the rest of the world still doesn’t understand how we’re going to treat that. Now the only place on this earth that will pride itself with having enough trees is Africa and Zambia is one of those particular countries which we’ve already seen that people are clamoring to come and see how best they could do carbon offsets in Zambia. Now, to answer your question, we have been looking at opportunities of having to go eco-friendly and as a country the first things first that we did, understanding how important it is to actually live in a green economy was the setting up of a new Ministry in our country.

Which is the Minister of Green Economy and Environment, which is headed by my colleague, Collins Nzovu. Now, that is already a statement, and remember also that Zambia now sits as a chair of the Africa group of negotiators. And as such, we are really sitting at the top table in terms of how to negotiate in terms of issues to do with the green economy environment, the climate change agenda. So as we mention of tourism, because we sit at the 33% that I keep on mentioning about simply means that whichever investor, whichever business, whichever individual who would come to invest in the particular landscape, needs to respect, number one, the people within that area.

You should also remember the protected area that we’re talking about is land that was given away or or surrendered to government by the locals, by the indigenous people so that they become a protected area. So as such, if you’re going to invest in that particular area, priority for me, priority for the ministry, priority for this government is to their indigenous people in that particular area.

So we need to see how best you could actually uplift their livelihoods. You need to give them different land use options so that they’re able to survive. We can’t be sitting here enjoying air conditioning, five-star life when the people who actually sacrifice pieces of land are living in squalor.

That is not something that we signed up for and we are seven leaders. We looking forward to be able to pull everybody else to where we are. We’re not suggesting that they all move to Lusaka, but we need to create assemblies of a decent life for those people and the decent life for those people is ensuring that there’s free education, which this particular government has already pronounced, making sure that there’s clean water and sanitation. We are looking at a time where these people should be able to access safe water through their homes, not to be sharing water with animals. No, that is not gonna happen, not under the watch of his excellency, the president.

And also making sure that there’s decent healthcare. In those particular areas that they’re living in more and not, and last, but not least, we’re talking about access, we’re talking about road access. Is it gravel? Is it tar? Whatever it is, they should be able to move from point A to point B. So those are some of the things that we’re looking into to making sure that we keep the environment as friendly as we found it.

We keep the environments to making sure that we have an ecosystem that is able to sustain for the next generations to come. And also what we have actually done as a ministry is, is to encourage the investors that get into those particular protective areas, to be able to reforest.

I think for a very long time, we’ve actually seen that people go into their countries, they cut trees, there’s a lot of lumbering, which obviously we don’t allow. And illegal timber logging is there. But I think the law will catch up with those people who actually get to do it, but ultimately we will still maintain Zambia as a great nation.

Due to the abundance of rich natural resources, recent investments in solar and wind energies to push Zambia to a greener economy, and the presence of global banks, it’s attracted a significant international community ready to explore what Zambia has to offer. Is business tourism a subcategory you foresee growing further, and how will you nurture it? 

 Well, I’m not sure about it being a sub-category, but I think it should be the category. And why I say so is because, business tourism, again, is one such opportunity that I think we seem to have not really, natured quite a lot. And as such, in terms of having to plan and taking cognizance, that’s where the bigger, cash cow is. We strongly believe as a Ministry that before somebody comes to invest in your particular country, I think the first things first that you need to do is to welcome them as a friend. So they need to understand the mannerisms, they need to understand the nature of the of the environment that you’re in. They need to understand the people and everything else that goes with it, the laws, the dos and don’ts. So once that is done, that’s where the leisure aspect comes in, of which we’re trying to woo quite a number of them.

Then once that is done, then now you create an opportunity for business. Now, alongside that, I think what we strongly feel is that would work for us is to create what would we to encourage the meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions, and when people actually travel to a specific destination for business, it becomes easier.

It’s twofold, you come for a meeting today funded by your organization. You come into the destination and then suddenly you realize, I say, “wait a minute. I’ve never been to a country this warm, this nice. I think I’m going to come down with my family next time”. So the next time they come with their family, they’re more relaxed, then they start to open their eyes and say, look, wait a minute, actually there’s a better opportunity to set up accommodation.

There’s a better opportunity to do transport. There’s a better opportunity to set up a restaurant. That is exactly how we want to look at it. So we have already been looking at opportunities of creating Zambia as a nice destination. Again, I’ll go back to the issue of us being land linked within the southern African region where we are right at the center.

So if people can converge in Zambia for meetings and then they’ll be able to go out there, it gives us a better opportunity to actually sell Zambia, both as a business as well as a leisure destination and that is our ultimate goal. So in terms of harnessing that, we are looking at having to hold that foot.

We have an ultra modern convention center now, that one is akin to the one at the AU in Addis. It sits over 2,500 people in there. That is just one of them. We have one again up in Chong area, which is the Sierra. We also have one at government complex, so we have all these conferencing facilities that we have, let alone we’re talking about the places such as Livingston, which also offers opportunities for conferencing.

Now, what are we talking about in terms of harnessing? In terms of harnessing, we have also extended opportunities to create more bed space for people. How do we create more bed space? Encouraging investment into big hotels just to, just in the last six months, Zambia has yet again, added another 200 beds up in Livingston.

The first Regis resort in Africa was opened last year, an amazing facility, which is something that we’re already doing here in Lusaka, we’ve got a new hotels in Ciela, where the Bonanza is, we also have a refurbished Intercontinental five star hotel with presidential suites. Those are some of the opportunities that we’re putting in place to making sure that Zambia is destination ready.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Well, I think just to wind down, it is just to encourage, as many people as you possibly can. We will have an opportunity to read, to listen to see what Zambia has to offer. Zambia has a rich diversity in terms of business, leisure, culture, food, people. Everything that is in there has all the bells and whistles of which would like to encourage people to come and see Zambia, and I think there’s no better opportunity to come and invest in Zambia than now. If you let that ship sail, you’ll have yourself to blame.