Taking advantage of its natural assets, the tourism offering of landlocked Malawi is becoming increasingly sophisticated.
Bordered by Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania, Malawi is a landlocked nation – although you wouldn’t know it. A country swallowed up by the Great Rift Valley system, it is renowned as the home of Lake Malawi, the third largest and second deepest lake in Africa. Boasting golden sandy beaches, colourful aquatic wildlife and crystalline waters, the lake is undoubtedly the country’s main attraction. The lake aside, Malawi equally features an array of towering mountains, tropical forests and other geographical marvels that constitute a variety of renowned national parks and wildlife reserves, offering some of Africa’s best game viewings. From elephants to lions to leopards, roughly 20 percent of the entire country has been dedicated to Malawi’s world-famous flora and fauna.
Moving from the rural to the urban, Malawi’s capital Lilongwe is home to 1.2 million people, known as the country’s most important economic and political hub. This and Blantyre, with a population of roughly one million people, make up the country’s core business districts, simultaneously acting as the major commercial and industrial centres that bolster the Malawian economy and serve business travellers the world over.
THE BUSINESS END
Despite the limitations of being a landlocked country, Malawi has made substantial economic strides over the course of the last decade, owed to a series of five-year growth and development strategies. The current plan, lasting until 2022, is largely focused on bolstering the country’s education, energy, agriculture, health and tourism sectors, the latter becoming increasingly important to Malawi’s economic success.
Isaac Katopola, Director of Tourism for Visit Malawi, ran by the Malawi government, comments: “The department is guided by key national development strategies like the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy III.
“This is on top of our own sector specific strategies such as the National Tourism Policy and the 2020 Strategic Tourism Plan, which outline ways that tourism can be used as a vehicle to eliminate poverty through increased involvement and participation of local communities.”
Asked how and why tourism is becoming an ever-important economic contributor to Malawi, Katopola adds: “Business travel in Malawi has increased over the years.
“This has been propelled by the construction of conference centres and other facilities such as the Bingu International Conference Centre in Lilongwe and other lakeshore conference venues in Mangochi.”
TOURISM INSIGHTS: VISIT MALAWI
Visit Malawi, part of the country’s Department of Tourism, is a government organisation whose mandate is to develop, promote and regulate tourism in Malawi. The promotional activities are undertaken under the Visit Malawi banner and the vision in line with the Strategic Tourism Marketing Framework which aims to raise the effectiveness and economic impact of tourism marketing efforts. All the promotional activities rest upon the brand essence which is ‘Rich in Contrast, Compact in Size and Big in Hospitality’, under the brand tagline of ‘the Warm Heart of Africa’. We caught up with Isaac Katopola, Director of Tourism, to find out more.
Q&A WITH ISAAC KATOPOLA, DIRECTOR OF TOURISM, VISIT MALAWI
Why, in your opinion, should someone visit Malawi?
Isaac Katopola (IK): There are various reasons to visit Malawi as we have a diverse tourism product offering. I can summarise with nine reasons to visit Malawi, which are: Lake Malawi; the fact we are Africa’s newest Big 5 destination; authentic nature experiences; attractive outdoor sports environments; rich cultural heritage; pleasant climate; peaceful and compact; big on hospitality (Malawians are known to be warm, friendly and welcoming); and local delicacies.
Are there any specific attractions, landmarks or places to eat and drink that you would recommend?
(IK): Lake Malawi continues to be the key selling feature for Malawi. This 365-mile-long and 52-mile-wide fresh water lake is home of Cichlids, most of which are endemic, and is ideal for varied water sporting activities like kayaking, snorkelling and scuba diving. In addition to the lake, our wildlife has improved significantly in terms of numbers of species. We are the newest Big 5 destination thanks to extensive restocking and other conservation initiatives. On the food and drink side, Malawi gin and tonic is synonymous with game drives and sun downers and is highly recommended. The famous Lake Malawi chambo fish with nsima (a staple food made out of maize) and fresh vegetables is a must try whenever in Malawi.
What are the best ways of getting around the country?
(IK): The implementation of the Malawi Transport Masterplan is bringing in huge improvements in terms of road and air transport infrastructure in the country. Some of the key activities in this Plan include the renovation of Kamuzu International Airport as well as an upgrade of some key access roads to tourism sites. In this regard, one can easily get around the country by road. All the attractions are within shorter distances, as we are relatively compact in size as a destination. The road network allows travellers to connect easily. Further, one can also connect between major cities like Lilongwe and Blantyre by air. For the tourism industry, travellers are able to connect between attractions. For instance, some key attractions like Likoma Island, Nyika National Park, Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve and Makokola Retreat can easily be connected by air from the country’s international airports. Furthermore, the iconic MV Illala and now MV Chilembwe continue to offer transportation on Lake Malawi connecting the key lakeshore districts and the Island of Likoma.
What trends are transforming the tourism industry in Malawi at present? How are you responding to these trends?
(IK): MICE is currently on the rise. There has been a significant increase in the number of establishments offering conferencing and events venues. Due to the notable demands for MICE, the Department of Tourism within its restructuring plans wishes to establish a Convention Bureau whose responsibility will be to position Malawi as a destination for world class events. In addition, we have been making a lot of strides in wildlife conservation and this includes the recent re-introduction of the cheetah and lions at Liwonde National Park and introduction of 13 giraffes at Majete Wildlife Reserve. These initiatives have transformed wildlife tourism in the country giving us the Big 5 destination status specifically at both Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve. The other protected areas have also seen massive reintroduction of wildlife species, the notable one being the biggest move of 500 elephants from Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife reserve to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. To leverage on this status, the Department continues to undertake activities that reinforce the repositioning of Malawi as a new Big 5 destination.
How do you see Malawi developing as a business travel hub over the next year to two years?
(IK): There will be significant growth in the hosting of events, including cultural, arts and sporting occasions. The key events not to miss include the annual Lake of Stars Music Festival, Sand Music Festival, Lake Malawi Sailing Marathon, the Mount Mulanje Porter’s Race, among others. Expositions and exhibitions are also growing in number with players from various sectors organising two- or three-day exhibitions across various cities and towns in the country. Particularly for the tourism industry, the Takulandirani Malawi International Tourism Expo will be hosted from April 25-27, 2019. The event has grown in terms of number of exhibitors, hosted international buyers and media as well as other events on the sidelines. In terms of new facilities, we are currently working on a Tourism Investment Masterplan whose purpose is to isolate tourism opportunities and projects in Malawi, and this will include the integrated resorts projects in Salima and Cape Maclear in Mangochi.
Are there any plans or projects in the pipeline that you wish to highlight?
(IK): Following the approval of the National Tourism Policy by cabinet, we will now create the Malawi Tourism Authority to carry out the marketing and regulation functions. In addition, implementation of the Promoting Investment and Competitiveness in the Tourism Sector (PICTS) project is important. This will see the commencement of a number of key consultancies and these include the further development of the Tourism Investment Masterplan, ecotourism strategy, and capacity building for tourism SMEs. Malawi, through the Department of Tourism and working with the National Statistics Office, will also embark on a project to establish the much-awaited Tourism Satellite Accounting system to assist in measuring the contribution and value of tourism to the economy.
Are you optimistic about the future of the tourism industry in Malawi?
(IK): We are very optimistic about the future of tourism in Malawi, especially now with the approval by cabinet of the National Tourism Policy. The National Tourism Policy has recognised that tourism is a multi-sectoral industry that can only thrive through collaborative efforts of the various sectors and stakeholders. As such, it has emphasised the need for all sectors and stakeholders to take their rightful role to accelerate growth of the sector through mainstreaming tourism issues across all sectors. This is expected to improve the general understanding of how the industry operates and, mostly, the way decisions and policies that affect tourism are made. Further, the Policy provides direction on a number of key issues which are expected to unlock opportunities, improve efficiency and coordination in the tourism sector. These include devolution of tourism responsibilities to local councils, collaboration on working conditions, increasing local employment and participation, promoting domestic tourism and improving stakeholder coordination.
We are hopeful that, through support of key stakeholders, the Policy will unlock opportunities for accelerating growth of the sector in Malawi.
Conveniently located in the heart of Lilongwe’s central business district, just 25 kilometres from Kamuzu International Airport, Crossroads Hotel provides ideal access to the city’s amenities. Linked to the Crossroads Shopping Complex, the hotel combines business services, contemporary dining and state-of-the-art conference facilities, appealing to both leisure and business travellers. The hotel’s reputation is built on a foundation of personalised service, providing an array of comfortable, elegant and spacious rooms to its customers. Professional, fully-serviced meeting rooms are available for business, while banqueting and conferencing facilities equally meet all event needs, from exhibitions and weddings to conferences and banquets.
OUT AND ABOUT IN MALAWI
As Katopola has already highlighted, Lake Malawi forms a central part of the country’s tourism offering and is a must-see attraction. Not only is it a natural wonder, it also provides excellent opportunities to take part in water sports and activities. Nature really is the main draw for visitors, with Lake Malawi supplemented by bountiful forest and numerous national parks like Liwonde, Nyika and Majete, the latter being revered as a worthwhile wildlife watching destination thanks to its successful lion reintroduction programme.
Those looking for something a little different should try the Cultural & Museum Centre in Karonga, off the M1 road, where the skeleton of the Malawisaurus takes pride of place. The Kamuzu Mausoleum is also worth a visit, the marble and granite burial site being the final resting place of Malawi’s ‘president for life’ Dr Hastings Kamuzu Band. Malawi is also a great place to try out local cuisine, for its style of food is rustic and traditional and relatively free from outside influences. Again, Lake Malawi shines, its fresh fish being a national speciality. Dairy products are bountiful thanks to a large cattle farming industry, and tropical fruits like bananas, pineapples and mangoes are abundant when in season.
GETTING TO AND AROUND
Largely provided by Kenya Airways, South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines, there are two prospective destinations for international flights into Malawi – Lilongwe in the central of the country, and Blantyre to the south. Once in the country, national carrier Malawian Airlines provides daily flights between the two cities, lasting about one hour and generally costing $50 for the journey, while the aviation arm of Ulendo Travel Group provides flights to many of the country’s major wildlife reserves.
Air travel aside, however, your best bet in terms of navigating the country is using AXA Coach Service, providing luxury non-stop services with air-conditioning, toilets, reclining seats, USB ports, reading lights and refreshments on its most premium vehicles. If you decide to opt for self-driving, then it is recommended that the main roads are stuck to as side streets and cross-country routes are often poorly maintained and laden with potholes. Further, you will generally need a full driving license with two years’ experience and have to be at least 23 years old. When travelling shorter distances, however, the country’s minibus and taxi services are recommended, both of these remaining easily accessible throughout the day.