KABANDA CHULU, Lusaka
THE Bangweulu wetlands are a jewel, strategically located in the warm heart of Zambia.
Blessed with natural beauty and an abundance of wildlife, exotic birds such as the shoebill and historical sites, this beautiful place is also home to the fine crystal white grain of sands, only compared to that of the Caribbean or the Mauritian islands.
The Bangweulu wetlands, whose main centre is Samfya, is accessible by road which is 78km from Mansa and about 242km from Mukando junction on the Great North Road. There is also an airstrip, but unfortunately it is in a dilapidated state that requires massive renovations for aircraft to land.
Despite the natural beauty of this area, coupled with its wealth in tourism opportunities and economic potential, it has remained under-utilised due to various challenges it faces.
The Kasanka National Park, with its wildlife, different bird species, serene environment, and the park, is well known for one of the world’s largest migrations of bats that partially cover the sun when a huge swarm of the mammals are flying.
Nevertheless, the wetlands offer more than tourism since the area is endowed with other economic resources such as fishing [commercial], mining for manganese and some copper deposits, timber processing, among other things.
Government has prioritised agriculture, tourism and manufacturing as key sectors that should be promoted to diversify the country’s economy away from copper mining.
To ensure full utilisation of the region’s economic potential, Luapula Province Chambers of Commerce and Industry chairperson Jonathan Mukabila urged Government to declare the Bangweulu wetlands a tourism economic zone to enable investors enjoy tax rebates and develop the area as a hub of the Northern Tourism Circuit comprising Luapula, Muchinga and Northern provinces.
Mr Mukabila said the areas have enormous potential that should be utilised to create jobs, improve people’s livelihoods and petition revenue to the treasury.
“This region has 40 percent of the country’s water bodies. It also has one of the world’s largest migrations of bats at Kasanka National Park and natural white sands along the Lake Bangweulu beach, but there is need to address infrastructure such as the road networks leading to the sites and upgrading of Samfya airstrip to enable landing of larger aircraft.
“Actually, the area should be declared an economic zone so that investors can enjoy tax rebates and develop the full potential of the tourist attractions,” he said.
With the right inflow of investment, the Bangweulu wetlands have the potential to surpass Siavonga as Zambia’s number two ‘holiday destination’ after Livingstone.
Despite the infrastructure challenges, the private sector has shown perseverance and made efforts to invest in the area and bring the much-needed development.
The private sector investment seems to concentrate mainly in the tourism and hospitality business through construction of hotels and lodges, with Chita Samfya Beach Resort being the most prominent with its ultra-modern facilities overlooking the Bangweulu shore line and its white sandy beaches that are used for recreation. Other lodges dotted along the beach include Samfya Beach Lodge, Waterfront, Sobam and Council Guest House.
In response to government investment policies, three years ago, Chita Lodges and Resorts decided to add another lodge from the ones it already has in Lusaka and Kafue.
But what prompted Chita Lodge to undertake a massive investment in an area that seems to have low business returns considering the infrastructure challenges and rough terrain that make construction difficult?
“The whole idea is to establish an area such as the one along the Durban ocean shore line in South Africa that is lined up with modern hotel facilities offering a warm and welcoming hospitality.
“There is no need for people to go abroad to enjoy these facilities because we have it in abundance at Chita Samfya. Zambians should start appreciating local tourism and its hospitality sites. To those who have been to Siavonga, we urge them to also visit Samfya and sample everything in a serene atmosphere,” Chita Samfya manager Kabwe Folotiya said in an interview recently.
Mr Folotiya said construction works started three years ago and partial opening was done in August 2016, and business has been slightly going up and was boosted last month when the welcoming reception for the Luapula Expo and Investment Conference was staged at Chita Samfya Beach Lodge.
“The structure is built with barriers to support other buildings since it stands on a hilly place. The lodge has three compounds with a total of 21 rooms and they are named after chiefs Kasoma Bangweulu, Mwansakombe and Mwansabombwe. The compounds are designed in such a way that they have six standard rooms with showers and one king suite with a shower, Jacuzzi and two double beds.
“We are also constructing 10 family rooms to increase capacity to 50 bed spaces, and construction is underway for an additional 48 bed spaces once two dormitories will be completed. These will be ideal for families or groups of tourists,” he says.
So how viable is the hospitality business in the midst of challenges?
“We are yet to heighten our marketing activities but there is potential for great business. Most people who have been here were just informed by the few visitors we have been having, mainly from Lusaka and Kitwe.
“Looking at the distance from Lusaka [700km], we are considering to engage Proflight for group packaged services by flying into Mansa, then we can drive them into Samfya since the airstrip here is not in good shape. We also don’t have a boat cruise but we do arrange with Post Boat if clients request for the service then we sail them on the Lake,” said Mr Folotiya, who has worked several years in the lodges in Lower Zambezi National Park.
To every challenge, there seems to be a solution, and Mr Folotiya is optimistic that soon there will be a turnaround for business in the Bangweulu wetlands area. “This area has potential to earn the country foreign exchange, once there is an upgrade of roads, airstrip and continuous engagement of the private sector by Government whenever they make policies.
“Of course, Government is doing something but more needs to be done. On our part, we have enough land for expansion to continue offering memorable experiences to people. We also intend to buy a large boat for cruises and to help promote fishing as a sport. Similarly, we are planning to start packages by taking people outside Samfya to sample waterfalls and other attractions,” he says.
Indeed, the Bangweulu wetlands, especially the beaches on the shore of Lake Bangweulu, provide an awesome and memorable experience.
It is a wonderful feeling that compels one to be thinking of undertaking another expedition.