Inside the Sinathankawu Arts and Crafts Market in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, Amon Kunda polishes a sculpture as he waits for customers.
The market is packed with stalls selling beadwork, wood carvings of various sizes and textures, and other souvenirs. The articles are carefully arranged, each piece is the evidence of an expert hand. Other merchants, some of whom are artisans, sit at their stalls and polish their wares. Like Kunda, they are waiting for customers, mostly local and international tourists who visit the city in search of attractions such as Victoria Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the world. These attractions guarantee a ready market. But today, only a few customers have visited.
Kunda lives in Chinotimba, a high-density suburb of Victoria Falls known for its resorts, and has owned a craft market shop for 17 years. “I built a house and sent my two children to school thanks to the sale of handicrafts,” says the father. “But the hotels and hostels have stolen our business.”
Local craft merchants in this tourist hotspot decry increasing competition from hotels and hostels, which they say is not only robbing them of their heritage, but denying them a livelihood. Traders contend competition worsened during the pandemic, when restrictions on movement meant tourists, both local and international, stayed in their hotels, prompting hotels and hostels to sell souvenirs directly to visitors. Even after restrictions were eased, hotels didn’t stop, so fewer tourists now buy directly from informal traders.
“People were wary of moving,” says Nguquko Tshili, general secretary of the Adam Stander Traders Association, an association of arts and crafts businesses in Victoria Falls. “They bought curios at the hotels and hostels where they were staying.” Between 500 and 600 merchants have been affected in Victoria Falls alone, Tshili says.
For arts and crafts merchants like Kunda, industry is their lifeline and an important part of their infrastructure. Handicraft products ranked fifth among 13 products and services, according to government data from 2018, in terms of percentage of products consumed by tourists, such as food and beverage services, accommodation services, and travel agency services. Foreign visitors spent 12.1% of their total spending on arts and crafts that year.
The conflict between Victoria Falls hotels and handicraft dealers goes beyond simply losing business, says Daves Guzha, a renowned Harare-based arts expert and theater producer. Guzha worries that if this line of business does not remain viable for merchants and they lose out to the big hotels, they will lose more than a lifeline. They will lose their culture.
Rayton Ncube has spent 22 years in the curio trade; it is his identity. “Hotels and hostels should stick to their core business of offering accommodation to tourists and not interfere with our business, which is our only source of livelihood,” says Ncube, a father of four.
The solution, Ncube says, is for the municipality to ensure that businesses continue to provide the services they are licensed to provide. “Our biggest challenge is that there is no law or clause in local laws that prevents hotels and hostels from selling artifacts,” says Tshili, general secretary of the merchants’ association. “We are currently in the process of pressuring the municipality to include a clause that protects our businesses.” He says the clause will bar hotel operators from selling curios.
Zimbabwe’s arts and crafts exports reached around $10.5 million in 2019, mainly destined for South Africa, Europe and the US.
Mandla Dingani, a spokesperson for the City of Victoria Falls, says businesses are free to offer whatever services they want, if they are licensed to do so. “[The municipal] municipal licenses according to the services provided by the applicant, and in this case, the hotels in question have been duly authorized for their services and the craft shops domiciled in their areas of operation as well”, says Dingani.
Licensing is governed by the Shop Licensing Act, which does not discriminate against any company’s intent to venture into one type of business, says Dingani. “In the same spirit, the local authority is not prohibited from granting licenses to hotels that intend to venture into the sale of artifacts.”
Brian Ndlovu, business manager of Teak Lodge in Aerodrome, a low-density suburb of Victoria Falls, says the township licensed the hotel to sell crafts in 2016. In most cases, he says, his customers prefer a one-stop shop. He adds that between 2014 and 2015 tourism boomed. The hostel saw it as an opportunity to expand their business.
Nqobizitha Mangaliso Ndlovu, Minister of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality, says that the current conflict is in the jurisdiction of the municipality, which is responsible for issuing business licences. But he sees the arts and crafts sector as a part of tourism that makes a significant contribution to the country’s economy. “As a ministry, we make sure to support the sector in the best possible way,” he says.
Tourism in Zimbabwe has made significant contributions beyond employment, according to a study published in the African Journal of Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure. For example, international tourists spend foreign exchange, which increases Zimbabwe’s foreign exchange reserves.
Tshili says the merchants’ association is in the early stages of drafting a proposal for the municipality. Dingani confirms that the Victoria Falls Municipality has yet to receive an official complaint from local merchants. In the meantime, he urges hotels, artisans and merchants to engage in dialogue and find the best way to work together, “from the production line to the point of sale.”
This story was originally published by Global Press Journal. Global Press is an award-winning international news publication with more than 40 independent news bureaus in Africa, Asia and Latin America.