The 2022 World Heritage Watch Report presents a detailed list of natural and cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites that civil society groups consider to be at risk. Out of the 57 sites reported on, for at least 16 the danger is caused by an unsustainable form of tourism or tourism developments.
The case of the Victoria Falls / the Mosi-ao-Tunya World Heritage Site, in Zambia and Zimbabwe is emblematic of these developments. Even though the site has already been increasingly under pressure from tourism, the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority authorized a local operator to offer exclusive tours to Cataract islands, a small island on the western end of the falls that serves as an animal protection area. This is problematic in two respects. On the one hand, Cataract Island grows one of the last patches of the Victoria Falls ‘rainforest’ untouched by tourism. This fragile environment and rich vegetation zone around the falls is home to a diverse flora of rare plants and is very vulnerable to external disruptions.
On the other hand, Cataract and the neighboring Livingstone Island are – just like the falls itselves, the gorges, and the spray – part of a holy cultural landscape for the local Leya. Unfortunately, many aspects of their spiritual faith got lost due to colonialism, but some traditions have seen a recent revival. The river is associated with healing powers, the natural pools on the edge of the falls are used for cleansing rituals, and water from holy spots on the riverbanks is collected for traditional ceremonies. In the past, both islands served for traditional ceremonies, as places of worship to make offerings and pay respects to the ancestors. Nevertheless, the current management of the site is overlooking this cultural significance.
For the tours to Cataract Island, multiple buildings for reception and gastronomy are going to be built directly on the riverbank, which has already been cleared of trees and plants. Even though the riverbank is part of the national park and thereby protected as it serves as a buffer zone around the World Heritage Site. Moreover, there are plans for further lodges right on the river, for instance, the Mosi-oa-Tunya resort, which is currently being developed on the Zambian part of the falls without any consultations with UNESCO. These new tourism projects, backed by Zambia and Zimbabwe, show the importance of an independent Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, which examines the full impact of these kinds of developments on the Outstanding Universal Value of a World Heritage Site. Postponing the current tourism projects is therefore necessary until a detailed report on the plans and their impact on the World Heritage Site can be presented. In addition, the boundaries and buffer zones must be finally determined and an appropriate management for the entire World Heritage Site established.