Zimbabwe, Zambia in tug of war over Vic Falls tourists

"Tourists are back!" said Knowledge, all smiles at the Victoria Falls tourism office.

His sentiment is shared widely in this resort town on the edge of the mile-wide waterfall, where it's hard to remember that three years ago Zimbabwe was trapped in a seemingly endless spiral of hyperinflation, hunger and political violence.

Victoria Falls had become a ghost town as tourists opted for the comforts and safety of resorts on the Zambian side of the Zambezi River, where the once sleepy town of Livingstone enjoyed a tourism boom as Zimbabwe collapsed.

"The Zambian side has definitively profited from all the problems in Zimbabwe," said Sarah, who sells excursions for at the Zambezi Sun, part of a South African hotel chain that opened on the Zambian side in 2001.

Hotels, lodges and other tourist attractions have mushroomed over the past decade around Livingstone, which became so popular that it now boasts several daily direct flights to South Africa.

But a brand new curio market on the main road lies empty as tourists fly in and hop across the border.

"We are not happy, the situation is bad," said the Livingstone Tourism Association. "They come here for activities and they go to Zimbabwe for accommodation."

Livingstone still runs a brisk trade in business travel by hosting conferences and corporate team-building workshops, but now faces stiff competition with Victoria Falls for leisure travellers.

Zimbabwe's tourism earnings jumped 47 percent last year to $770 million, as the number of visitors rose 15 percent to 2.3 million nationally, with Victoria Falls the country's biggest attraction, according to the tourism ministry.

Tourism minister Walter Mzembi hopes to grow that number to five billion dollars by 2015.

"However, this is on condition that the current peace and stability in the country prevails and the country is able to spin a more positive image of itself," he told reporters last month.

Since Zimbabwe adopted the US dollar two years ago, prices are lower in Victoria Falls than in Livingstone, where entrance to the derelict Railway Museum costs $15 for foreigners.

"It is cheaper here, and people can walk to the falls. They don't have to take a taxi or whatever," said Duni, a Victoria Falls hawker offering sunset cruises, helicopter rides, rafting, bungee jumps and safaris to passers-by on the sidewalk.

While Victoria Falls sits at the river edge, Livingstone is 10 kilometres (six miles) away, with a fleet of blue taxis shuttling visitors around for $10 a pop.

Opinion is divided on which side offers the better view of the 108-metre (360-foot) high falls, though the Zimbabwean side has a greater variety of viewpoints.

Confident in its renaissance, Victoria Falls has asked for Chinese aid to expand its airport to accommodate bigger planes.

But the throngs of street vendors trailing tourists are a constant reminder that it's still not business as usual.

Among the souvenirs on offer, a 100-trillion-dollar note from the old Zimbabwe currency, a worthless amount during the age of hyperinflation. Its relegation to the trinket shelves is what allowed to Victoria Falls to welcome visitors again.

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