Zimbabwe-born-and-bred Ross Kennedy, CEO of Africa Albida Tourism, talks to Phil Clisby about his life and country
What was it like growing up in Zimbabwe?
It was a healthy, outdoor, disciplined but fun life, with great schooling and sport, in exciting times in the late 1950s and 60s. Operation Noah at Lake Kariba took place during those formative years — one of the world’s great conservation and wildlife rescue projects.
Why and how did you get into the tourism industry?
My older brother became a hotelier, and I followed suit. My family’s background is in mining, irrigation and cattle, so this was a considerable diversion.
What prompted you to build lodges and open restaurants in Zimbabwe?
In the late 1980s I was working in the UK, operating hotels, pubs and restaurants. In August 1989 an old school friend called to say he had found a piece of land for possible development at Victoria Falls, and were Karen and I interested in being involved as ‘the hoteliers’ in the equation? The timing was perfect; we were ready to go home, and the rest, as they say, is history.
What does your usual day entail?
I wake up early and check emails from home. On alternate days I go for a walk or go to the gym before heading to the office, where I’ll discuss upcoming plans and activities with colleagues. I’ll then conduct sales, PR and marketing reviews with the team, liaise with industry partners (tour operators et al), deal with industry matters both locally and across Africa (wearing my Atta Chairman’s hat), and hold forward-planning meetings with my fellow directors. And, finally, more emails! My headstone will say: ‘Out of office — permanently’.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The satisfaction and pride of knowing what we have created over the past 25 years in tourism in Zimbabwe and Botswana; and the pleasure, enjoyment and positive experiences that so many guests have enjoyed with us in that time. Equally important has been seeing the development and growth of so many young Zimbabweans in our business and the industry with our help.
What particular challenges have you faced?
I guess the single most difficult period was 2000 to 2009 — hyperinflation, a status of pariah state conferred upon Zimbabwe by the world and tourism spend dropping by more than half meant sustaining, maintaining and growing a business was unbelievably tough.
What needs to be done to improve tourism in Victoria Falls and, of course, Zimbabwe as a whole?
The new Victoria Falls International Airport is a major step forward and a benefit to both the destination and the country. What we need to do now is ensure that long-haul airlines commit to flying the route and that the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe operates it as a world-class facility with our support. Infrastructure upgrades and wide-open welcoming arms to the world will make for improvement.
What involvement do you have with projects in the local area?
I am a founding member and trustee of Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit. I work closely with co-founder Charles Brightman to support fundraising and administration, so that he and his scouts can focus on operations, which they do so incredibly well and successfully. We also support the Victoria Falls Clean Team, Victoria Falls Tourism Police, local schools, an old people’s home, an orphanage and other charities and trusts in Zimbabwe.
What has been your best experience in Africa?
Lying under a full moon on the Makgadikgadi salt pans, near Baines’ Baobabs, with a group of good mates, a cooler box — and complete silence!
What was your most memorable wildlife encounter?
Being chased around a vehicle by an ill-tempered elephant at Chongwe River Camp in 1995.
Who has been your favourite guest, and why?
Keith Floyd, the first of the so-called celebrity chefs, when cooking down by our waterhole at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge — there was more wine than cooking! He was such a big character.
What’s next on your travel bucket list?
In Africa: lowland gorillas and the migration. Elsewhere: the Amazon, the Maldives and to play some of the top 20 golf courses in the world.