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Victoria Falls 'at risk', UN warns

World Heritage status may be revoked as Zimbabwe and Zambia compete for tourist income

Victoria Falls, one of the world's greatest natural wonders, may cease to be a World Heritage Site as a result of the chaos in Zimbabwe.

Known locally as Mosi oa Tunya, or "the smoke that thunders", the falls are more than a mile wide and 420ft high. They have been a tourist hotspot since 1905, but Unesco is now considering listing the site as "endangered" because of mismanagement that has allowed the once prosperous resort to deteriorate.

Furthermore, over-zealous Zambian developers are proposing to build 500 chalets in a national park overlooking the falls, prompting warnings that the plan could lead Unesco to remove the site'sWorld Heritage status immediately.

Control of the Victoria Falls, named by the explorer David Livingstone in 1855, is at the centre of a turf war between two government bodies - the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management - both fighting over rights to manage one of the country's last remaining sources of valuable tourist revenue as hyperinflation touches 1,100 per cent.

The Zambezi river, which plunges over the falls, forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Most Western tourists used to stay on the Zimbabwean side, attracted by top-class facilities such as the Victoria Falls and Elephant Hills hotels, but the surrounding decay, and safety fears after the often violent land seizures initiated by President Robert Mugabe, have seen tourist revenues plunge by more than 70 per cent to $98m (£51m) last year from $340m in 1999, before land reforms started.

Unesco is also alarmed by Zambia's efforts to benefit from Zimbabwe's disarray. In a reversal of the traditional position, most foreign visitors now approach the falls from the Zambian side, even though the view is less spectacular. The tourism industry in Zambia is booming, with the number of overseas arrivals doubling between 2003 and 2005, bringing the country much-needed income, and new hotels are springing up near the Zambian town of Livingstone.