SAMFYA, a small town on the western edge of the picturesque Lake Bangweulu in Luapula Province is always hyped as Zambia’s next big tourism centre. It is also the largest town on the shores of Lake Bangweulu, the main tourism attraction.
But Lake Bangweulu, which the local people say is “the place where the water meets the sky”, is for now, more of a source of fish than tourism. The main catches are bream, tigerfish, yellow belly, and catfish, which has also depleted due to overfishing.
In 2017, during the Luapula investment expo, government said the event will open Samfya up to a whole range of social and economic opportunities, including access to the tourism markets and make it a strategic corridor for other sites in the northern region.
As part of the expansion plan, Samfya town council and the Workers Compensation Fund Control Board (WCFCB) signed an agreement for a convention centre. According to provincial minister Nickson Chilanga, the centre will boost the tourism sector in Luapula Province.
A few local and international tourists have been to the area to watch the lake and play in the sandy beaches and enjoy a few drinks by the shores of the lake. Beyond that, there is nothing more that the place has on offer for tourists.
There are a few lodges dotted along the main tarred road that separates them from the lake. The road stretches from Samfya beach lodge in the west, owned by Dan Pule, former deputy finance minister during the Movement for Multi-party (MMD) government ending at health minister, Dr Chitalu Chilufya’s Samfya Marine in the east.
In between is Chita Lodge owned by ruling Patriotic Front (PF) supporter James Chungu, popularly known as ‘Jimmy fingers’ and another – the Natives operated by minister Chilangwa.
Sleeping in the lodges costs an ‘arm and a leg’ and food is equally expensive said one of the tourists who was in the area for work but decided to visit the shores of the lake. Tourists also must endure hours of load shedding lasting for more than six hours a day.
“I hadn’t been to Samfya in four years but nothing much has changed since I was last here,” wrote senior journalist – Edem Djokotoe.
“The rustic charm is still there. There are a few new lodges on the beach-front and they are as overpriced as hell. You could part with as low as K1,600 for the cheapest room in the house in one of the more upmarket establishments cashing in on the town’s growing reputation as a chill spot. Hiring a boat from Samfya Marines to Chilubi Island and back will set you back K12,000,” Djokotoe explained in his facebook posting.
“Hiring a boat to Chilubi can fetch as high as K14,000,” added Muchuzi Siame, a journalist working for Bangwela FM, a local radio station.
If used properly, Bangwela FM can be a powerful tool that can help spur tourism growth in Samfya. But the station has its own challenges which include lack of trained journalists to help put Samfya on the tourism map.
Kitwe on the Copperbelt is one of the nearest places where some of the more affluent Zambians who visit Samfya come from. Darlington Bwalya, a Kitwe resident said, apart from enduring the long drive on the pedicle road full of potholes, enroute to Samfya, via Mansa he met the high costs.
“The only challenge I found here is accommodation, it is on the high side, especially when you’re with your family, you want to show them what is happening,” he said.
“The other challenge is the road, if you’re coming from Copperbelt, it is a very big big challenge – crossing from Mufulira up to Mansa, the road is very bad,” added his friend Oriborn Songwezi.
According to the Seventh National Development Plan, “one of the major factors that affects the tourism sector was inability to keep tourists for longer periods”.
“This was due to inadequate diversification of tourism products, underdeveloped tourism circuits and tour packages,” said the plan.
The hurdles the tourism sector face that are preventing places like Samfya from being the focus of tourists are well expressed in the same document. They include, but not limited to lack of a comprehensive national tourism plan, underdeveloped tourism-related infrastructure… low participation by locals in direct and indirect tourism development and Zambia being perceived as high cost.
Although tourism is one of the principal pillars of Zambia’s economic diversification efforts, statistics to measure progress at places like Samfya are not available.
“Clearly we don’t have statistics for accommodation in most parts of Zambia as we receive very few submissions from the lodges. We get statistics from gated places like National parks and Heritage sites,” explained an official from the Ministry of Tourism and Arts who is not authorised to speak to the media.
According to the 2019 tourism statistical digest from the tourism ministry, government’s major focus for tourism that year was product diversification. One of the key initiatives was continued investment in infrastructure intended to facilitate access to the under services tourism sites through utilization of the Tourism Development Fund.
Through the Samfya Beach Development Project, some landscaping and planting of exotic trees were done on a 10km stretch of beach front, say the report.