|Mr Porro: I'm not running a business, I'm running a passion.|
|Konkamoya is a picturesque place teeming with game.|
Why aren’t tourists following the wind?
- JACK ZIMBA, Itezhi Tezhi
WHEN Andrea Porro got bored running a business as a wildlife photographer and graphic designer in his hometown Milan, Italy, he sold his shares in the company and bought a piece of heaven on the edge of Lake Itezhi Tezhi in the South Kafue National Park called Konkamoya, which literally translates “follow the wind”.
- Mr Porro is a zoologist specialised in evolutionary biology, but he says he could not find employment in Italy, so he set up a photography and graphic design business which he ran for 20 years with his partner, and then decided to follow the wind.
“When I reached 46, I decided I can’t spend my life 14 hours before the computer, and when I came here, the owner offered me 50 percent in the lodge, and in one night I decided to sell my shares in my business in Italy and bought shares in Konkamoya,” he says in heavily accented English.
He now has full ownership of the lodge.
It is not hard to see why Mr Porro fell in love with this place.
Konkamoya is a picturesque – a dreamland-of-sorts – place with tented guest rooms cast against still waters of the man-made Lake Itezhi Tezhi with its islands. On a good day, especially in the dry season when many water sources dry up in this wilderness, one can watch large herds of elephant – up to 300 – come to drink from the lake without moving an inch from the bar stool.
And almost everywhere you look, there are puku grazing lazily. Occasionally, one can see lion and cheetah, hippo and all kinds of birds. The southern part of the Kafue National Park is teeming with wildlife and creates a perfect destination for tourists bringing in the much-needed dollar.
But Mr Porro is struggling to keep his business afloat. The only thing sustaining this dreamy place is Mr Porro’s passion for wildlife and nature.
“I’m not running a business here, I’m running a passion,” he tells me as he lights a cigarette.
Mr Porro’s first visit to Zambia was in the South and North Luangwa National parks, but when he visited this part of the Kafue National Park, he fell in love with it and decided to own part of it.
“The Kafue is one of the most beautiful national parks in Africa – and I have visited a lot of them. There is biodiversity here that is not equaled anywhere in Africa,” he says.
Have you visited the Kruger? I ask him.
“I have never been to the Kruger because there is too many people there, too much traffic and with the tar road and robots and speed traps, that is not a national park, it is a zoo, in my opinion,” he says with sarcasm in his voice.
But still, bringing in the tourists to this part of the Kafue National Park is not easy.
“I have to fight to bring tourists here,” says Mr Porro.
According to the Department of Parks and Wildlife at Ngoma, which oversees this part of the Kafue National Park, international tourist visits to the south Kafue in 2014 were 890, in 2015, 1,124 and in 2016, 1,218 tourists visited the area.
Although the tally is increasing, it not impressive enough.
“We are not happy with the tourist numbers, but these could be determined by the number of lodges. We have very few lodges in this area. We need more people to invest in the park because we have a lot to offer in terms of flora and fauna,” says Elliot Kasempa, who is in charge of the park.
There are only two lodges in an area covering 18,000km/sq. And Konkamoya only has 10 beds in order to keep the overhead costs lower.
“Our core business is conservation, but we do invite private investors to come and set up lodges,” Mr Kasempa tells me.
According to Mr Kasempa, the park has identified five sites where investors can set up lodges. But very few people have come forth.
But why wouldn’t anyone want to invest in the park?
“The park fees are too high,” complains Mr Porro. “This year I’m going to pay US$44,000 to stay in the park. It means I have to sell 100 bed nights because my rates on average are US$450 per night. Once I have sold 220, then I break even.”
But his business is affected by many factors he has no control over, such as Brexit.
Mr Porro says Britain accounts for most of the tourists visiting Konkamoya, but the decision to pull out of the European Union means that many Britons do not have enough money to spend on holidaying.
Mr Porro now has far fewer bookings from Britain, and is looking to other non-traditional European markets such as The Netherlands.
And earlier this year, he suffered 20 cancellations when the President declared a state of threatened emergency following acts of violence in the aftermath of the general elections last year.
And so, he has only sold about 60 bed nights this year.
Mr Porro says it is hard to compete with the lodges in the game management area on the fringes of the park, because they don’t pay high fees and so can keep their prices lower.
“That is why there is no investors in the park,” he says.
He says many investors have shown interest in buying Konkamoya, but they get discouraged when they look at the balance sheet.
He says a couple from Germany were recently interested in buying the lodge, but when they looked at the account books, they were discouraged.
Mr Porro says he has lost K7 million in the past seven years.
He says if nothing changes, he will have to close his business.
“I will decide in 2020 when my license expires whether I should remain in Zambia or not,” he says.
The Italian investor also thinks Zambia’s tourism is suffering from poor publicity.
“Zambia has to invest more to promote the country as a destination, there is not enough money to promote the country,” he says.
“Every year in Milano where I live, the Botswana tourism agency buys space in the subway to advertise their country as a destination. They don’t advertise the Delta or Moremi or Central Kalahari National Park. They advertise the country and the people in Italy know Botswana as a tourist destination,” he says.
Mr Porro makes movies using a drone to promote Konkamoya in Europe.
He says Liuwa National Park is now also famous after Africa Parks and National Geographic produced a documentary on the lone lioness that lived there which was a best seller.
Mr Porro and other lodge owners have also formed a consortium to try and advertise Zambia as a tourist destination in Europe.
He spent US$33,000 for marketing in Europe. According to Mr Porro, one of the biggest problems is that the park is little-known.
Zambia Tourist Agency (ZTA) director of marketing Mwabashike Nkulukusa says the agency this year was given K6 million for both local and international advertising. That is about US$600,000.
Zambia’s competitors in the region, such as Botswana and Namibia spent between US$8 million and US$12 million.
“We don’t even want to compare with South Africa which spent between US$80 million and US$200 million,” he says.
He says 2017 was the worst for the agency in that regard. The ZTA has been allocated K15 million for 2018 (about US$1.5 million).
But Mr Nkulukusa says the tourist agency needs not less than US$8 million if it has to do catch-up with its competitors in the region.
And there are other factors making Zambia less competitive with its neighbours.
“It is a bit more costly to come to Zambia, and this makes our destination less competitive,” says Mr Nkulukusa.
According to Mr Nkulukusa, the lack of direct flights from market sources is a major factor pushing the price of tourism in Zambia through the roof.
“Even our local flights are expensive. For one to fly from Lusaka to Livingstone, you have to pay the same fare as if you are going to Johannesburg,” he says.
The ZTA has now turned to social platforms such as Facebook to market Zambia.
Mr Nkulukusa says so far, the digital platform has shown a lot of potential, with 35,000 likes on Facebook. If only they can all be transformed from virtual to actuality.