Zambia is looking to upgrade its tourism infrastructure and provide more training for local tourist professionals to buff up the industry's global prospects.

Blessed with breathtaking natural wonders, an abundance of wildlife, and acknowledged as one of the safest countries in Africa, Zambia possesses a treasury of tourism potential that has yet to be fully seized. Under the new slogan “Zambia, Let's Explore," the government plans to boost the travel and leisure industry as one of the priority sectors to fulfill the national goal of economic diversification.

Home to the astonishing Victoria Falls, the tourism industry in Zambia made up 5.2% of GDP in 2013 (including indirect impacts), and it is expected to grow 8.1% annually over the next decade, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). The figure reveals a bright future for this business, which is also seen as a potential job generator in the next decade.

Currently, the tourism sector forms 3.5% of the labor force and employs 70,000 people. However, the number of international tourists arriving to Zambia it is expected to continue growing, and this will bring new employment opportunities for local jobseekers. The country received around 1.1 million foreign visitors in 2013, nearly one-third more than in 2009, but by 2024 that number is set to reach 1.8 million. By that stage, the industry will employ 4.5% of the labor force and will provide around 90,000 jobs.

The largest group of visitors in 2012 arrived from other African nations, with 76% of recorded arrivals, whereas 11% were of Asian origin, about 8% European, and 4% came from the US. Over half of the visitors stated that their purpose of visit was business, a percentage that illustrates the abundant investment opportunities in the country. On the other hand, 26% stated that had chosen thesouthern African nation as a destination for their holidays. Leisure travel spending generated 51% of direct travel and tourism GDP in 2013, compared with 49% for business traveling spending. In addition, domestic travel spending represented 72% of direct travel and tourism GDP in 2013, and it is forecasted to rise by 8% per year in 2024. Conversely, visitors exports totaled 28% and are expected to grow at a 3.9% annual rate for the next two decades.

Foreign visitor exports rose from around $150 million in 2009 to $225 million in 2013, and by 2024 will soar up to $337 million. The number of hotel rooms in Zambia grew substantially from 10,900 beds to 19,000 between 2005 and 2009, according to the Zambia Development Agency (ZDA). Even though the growth has been excellent, and it is forecasted to continue walking a profitable path in the coming years, there are still some hindrances challenging Zambia's rising tourism industry.

In the National Vision for 2030, the government pointed out an inadequate marketing approach to promote the sector as one of the reasons why Zambia had not been able to develop a strong travel and leisure sector as some of its neighbors have managed. However, in 2011 the Zambia Tourism Board carried out a rebranding campaign and moved away from the old “Zambia, the real Africa" to “Zambia: Let's Explore." This new slogan aims to differentiate the country from other nations in the region, which already have a powerful tourism industry, highlighting Zambia as a virgin destination for international travelers.

Another challenge is infrastructure, which is insufficient to propel the arrival of foreign visitors. However, the government has invested a large sum of money to vastly improve the transport network in Zambia. The flagship initiative is Link Zambia 8000, a $6 billion project carried out by the Road Development Agency (RDA) that aims to build 8,023 kilometers of new roads by 2020. Link Zambia 8000 will meet the efficiency of transport that the country needs. The project will improve some of the current roads, enhance access to rural areas, and reduce traveling time between cities. In the end, Link Zambia 8,000 is the keystone project to transform Zambia from a landlocked country to a “land-linked" country.

In addition to improving road transport, the government has several plans ongoing to enhance the three international airports in Zambia (Livingstone, Lusaka, and Ndola). When works are completed, these airports will be able to increase the number of daily arrivals in Zambia by air, meaning the 19 national parks and the 36 game management areas that the country has will be more accessible to international travelers.

Lower Zambezi, Kafue, or Nsumbu are the names of some of the most popular national parks in the country, where visitors can enjoy several activities like fishing, safari driving, or birdwatching. The enormous areas that these parks cover contain a plethora of wild animals such as elephants, crocodiles, impalas, lions, and hippopotami. For example, the Kafue National Park has an area of around 22,400 square kilometers (similar in size to Slovenia or almost Belgium), and is one of the largest in Africa.

But the most popular place for travelers in Zambia is Livingstone, a city that lies a few minutes away from the magnificent Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World that also serves as a natural border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Tourists in Livingstone can enjoy several attractions such as visiting the Mosi oa Tunya National Park, which includes the Victoria Falls, do kayak and rafting on the Zambezi River, fly over the area on a helicopter to enjoy the astonishing view, and even practice some sports such as bungee jumping from the Victoria Falls Bridge.

In 2013, Livingstone held the 20th annual UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) General Assembly, which was co-hosted by Zambia and Zimbabwe. Up to 8,000 people from 180 countries attended the event, making it one of the most prestigious events hosted by Zambia. The event showcased to the world the capability of Zambia to be a place for the MICE industry.

“People who come to Zambia for a conference will also want to go somewhere on the weekend. MICE tourism has a positive spillover effect on the sector and we think that it will grow in Zambia in the next years," stated Veronica Mumba, Public Relations Manager at Intercontinental in Lusaka. With 224 rooms, nine meeting rooms, and an exclusive private executive business floor, with access to a private boardroom and lounge, the Intercontinental is the leading hotel in Lusaka in terms of MICE tourism. Business travelers generate around 70% of the revenue of this internationally renowned hotel.

Zambia offers excellent opportunities for international investors who are willing to come into the hospitality industry. First of all, Zambia offers competitive labor costs. According to ZDA, the average monthly salary for an executive in a sizeable organization ranges at around $7,000 a month, whereas fresh graduates make about $1,400, level graduates earn approximately $250, and unskilled workers receive $150 on average.

Secondly, Zambia is a safe place for tourists. Zambians are friendly and welcoming to foreigners, and the country was never involved in any armed conflict after the colonial era, unlike other African nations. Its citizens take pride of this fact and are happy to point out the safeness of the country. This creates a proper atmosphere for the arrival of foreigners in the next years.

Thirdly, English is spoken by almost all Zambians. Even though there are over 70 indigenous languages, English is the sole official language of the nation. This allows foreign visitors to communicate with locals and also makes traveling easier and more comfortable, in addition to becoming an advantage when doing business. Local businessmen are fluent in English, which facilitates communicating in meetings and helps when attending social events in the country.

Furthermore, the current regulation offers several incentives to foreign investors coming into the tourism industry such as tax incentives, non-fiscal incentives, exemptions, and concessions. Considered as a key sector to diversify the economy of Zambia, the government also facilitates the acquisition of land and access to services like water or energy. The tourism sector is seen as one the main job creators in the Zambia, and the government welcomes FDI in this industry.

In a nutshell, Zambia's tourism industry is on the rise. The number of business travelers as well as leisure tourists is expected to steadily rise over the next 10 years, and there is still a lot of room for companies to provide services in this sector. The rebranding campaign to re-position Zambia as a tourism destination, plus transport projects such as Link Zambia 8000, and the upgrading of the airports will boost the arrival of foreigners to explore Zambia. In the meantime, international investors will be “exploring Zambia" in order to match the needs of this booming industry.