Malawi Plans to Jumpstart Economy with Ecotourism

By Charles Mkoka

BLANTYRE, Malawi, January 9, 2003 (ENS) - Nowhere is southern Africa's food crisis more acute than in Malawi. Out of a total population of 11 million people, more than three million run the risk of starvation due to a combination of flooding and drought. But Malawi has a saving grace. Natural wonders of lake and mountain and wildlife are attractive to tourists, and the government is moving to enhance the country's tourist drawing power.

The Malawi Director of Tourism Services Tressa Namathanga says a strategic plan of action has been created within the Ministry of Tourism, Parks and Wildlife with funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). After a feasibility study was conducted, officials decided on an up market tourism development.

"The plan is now ready and is likely to take us five to 10 years to come," Namathanga says. "The plan focuses on tourism marketing, regularizing the industry, and human resource development."

Five places are identified as ripe for ecotourism development. First, the Nkhota-kota Wildlife Reserve in central Malawi is the country's largest game reserve. This rich area of Brachystegia woodlands unique to tropical Africa is inhabited by hundreds of elephants.

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Mount Mulanje (Photo courtesy Malawi Ministry of Tourism, Parks and Wildlife)
Second, Mount Mulanje in the heart of the southern region tea district is central Africa's highest mountain, and the third tallest on the continent. Often misty, the 3,000 meter (peaks rise from the clouds, offering some of the finest hiking and trekking trails in Malawi, with well maintained paths and huts, easy access and beautiful scenery, the Tourism Department says.

Third, watching the birds at Kapichira Falls on the Shire River in southern Malawi is a draw for tourists as are the antelopes, buffaloes and hippos at the Majete Wildlife Reserve. Much of the area's vegetation consists of miombo woodland with some riverine forest. It supports a small elephant population, as well as hippopotamus, kudu, sable, bushbuck, waterbuck, Sharpe's grysbok, zebra and warthog.

Fourth, the lakeshore district of Mangoche between Lake Malawi and Lake Malombe, straddling the Shire River was selected because of a chain of popular lake resorts and the opportunity to eat delicious fresh caught chambo fish, a species of the tilapia family. Chambo and chips is one of Malawi's most popular dishes. But all three species of chambos have been depleted by overfishing, so the fisheries department has attempted to control mesh sizes and night fishing.

Finally, Cape Maclear on the Nankumbe Peninsula jutting out into Lake Malawi is a good place for visitors to see the hundreds of fish species known as cichlids that are endemic to this lake.

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Map of southeast Africa showing Malawi and neighboring nations. (Map courtesy FAO)
Lake Malawi with over 750 fish species, is used by two other southern African countries - Tanzania and Mozambique. Environmentalists are worried about the destruction of the lake’s catchment area, its biodiversity and many other forms of environmental degradation. In September 2001, authorities from the three countries met in Lilongwe, Malawi, to harmonize and strengthen rules guiding the use and conservation of the environment and natural resources provided by the lake.

Namathanga said the government's tourism development plan will see hotels and lodges of 25 to 50 rooms being constructed to cater to visitors who can be enticed to feel that they are in the warm heart of Africa, as the "Land of Flames" is known to the outside world. "We would like to reach to that level," she said, "in order to boost the industry and attract more visitors to come to Malawi."

The Ministry of Tourism, Parks and Wildlife has identified other potential tourist sites for development such as the Maleri Islands that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Lake Malawi National Park. The Maleri Islands are ideal for camping especially for those who want to escape the industrial noise from the city and listen to the comorants.

The Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary in the heart of Malawi's capital, Lilongwe, keeps caged wild animals like pythons, hyenas and a leopard, and a network of nature trails in the sanctuary is ideal for nature exploration. This site is on the tourism development list.

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Elephant on the Shire River at Liwonde National Park (Photo courtesy Malawi Cichlid)
Also earmarked for promotion and development is Liwonde National Park, a haven for wildlife species such as the endangered black rhino which has been reintroduced into the park. Roan antelope, buffalo, zebra and hartebeasts also have been placed in the park. Boat rides along the Shire River are offered by a safari company are ideal for bird watching, and visitors can see an enormous variety of the Terminalia species of trees and shrubs. Besides yielding high value timber, many Terminalia species are the source of various non-wood forest products.

The development list also includes the rolling, flowered hills of the Nyika Plateau in northern Malawi. This montane highland area lies on the Malawian border at the easternmost tip of Zambia. The weather on the Nyika Plateau resembles that of Europe because of its altitude, so the area is preferred by most tourists from Europe and North America.

As a means of attracting investors to put up infrastructure and equipment to take the industry to international level, the tourism ministry intends to offer incentives by creating an enabling environment for outside tour operators. The operators will be encouraged to put up structures and equipment, and duties will be waived for a specific period such as 10 years.

Still, the Tourism Department has not received a green light from the Finance Ministry and it is still lobbying for these incentives. They are intended to create competitiveness and growth and showcase Malawi as a tourist destination to the rest of the world.

Namathanga admits there is stiff competition amongst destinations that wish to attract visitors from Europe.

"The tourists out there study information about the destinations and countries they intend to visit," she says. "Every visitor prefers spending his cash where the services are cost effective."

To promote high standards of excellence for the industry, the Tourism Department intends to launch a campaign that will help all unofficial tour guides follow standardized procedures in the course of their duties.

Local leaders in their areas will select eligible guides with good manners for this training. "All those selected will undergo a formal training to be administered by the Department of Tourism," she says.

"Once that is done, they shall all be licensed and shall bear proper identification systems. This will enhance effectiveness at local level thereby creating an enabling environment in Malawi as a tourist destination site."

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Chess set from Malawi (Photo courtesy Craig Morfitt)
Under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries program of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, local people will learn enhanced techniques for creating crafts, curios and souvenirs in order to improve their products and add value to them. "The department intends to build selected sites where kiosks will be constructed with restrooms," Namathanga says. "The local people can then gather their handcrafts, curios and souvenirs. This will, in the long run, uplift the average person in the village."

At a ceremony late last year at the Le Meriden Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre, the Malawi Ministry of Tourism, Parks and Wildlife unveiled a new tourism logo featuring the warm heart of Africa in the design.

"The new logo coupled with a proper and well focused market strategy will create increased awareness of tourism products, position Malawi as an ecotourism destination and re-affirm Malawi as a welcoming, adventure, stop-over destination," Tourism Minister Bernard Chisale said.

"The new strategy aims to generate increased tourism and foreign currency earnings, create long term employment opportunities, raise the standard of living of the poor people, and support conservation through sustainable development tourism in Malawi's national parks and areas of outstanding national beauty," said Chisale.

A new website at: http://tourismmalawi.com is intended to provide the base for tourism marketing at home and abroad as part of the tourism publicity and marketing strategy upon which the ministry has embarked. Public relations units have been opened in Europe and South Africa, said Assistant Director of Tourism Patricia Liabuba.

Still, Namathanga admits the tourism in Malawi is facing a lot of challenges. "The industry is currently facing problems on the ground due to poor road networks that have limited access to most tourist destinations sites as the roads became impassable, especially in rainy season," she says.

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Lake Malawi (Photo courtesy Malawi Tourism)
Namathanga notes that airfields are not strategically located so as to reduce inconveniences created by the problem of flight connections from one place to another.

There has been minimal infrastructure to support the industry so that it can comfortably compete at an international standard. Ecotourism has not been a priority because roads to natural wonders are not in good repair.

Figures obtained from the Ministry of Tourism, Parks and Wildlife indicate that in 1998 tourists numbering 219,600 visted Malawi, a growth of 5.9 percent from the previous year.

Another good year for tourism occurred in 1999 when 254,300 visitors entered the country for a growth of 15.8 percent over the previous year.

But in the year 2001 a decline in numbers to 227,600 showed a 10.5 percent decrease in tourists visiting Malawi.

Andrew Watson, who heads Community Partnership for Sustainable Resource Management in Malawi, estimates that tourism and related industries will generate US$27 billion per year by 2010 and over 30 percent of GDP in the Southern African Development Community region.

In his report entitled "Opportunities for Sustainable Financing of Community-Based Natural Resource Management in Malawi," Watson says the country has a good opportunity to develop a strong tourism industry.

"Malawi with its cultural, ecological and biological diversity, and scenic beauty should be poised to make the most of the opportunity," says Watson. "At the present however, economic instability and lack of investment incentives severely constrain growth."