18 November 2002

SOUTHERN AFRICA: Eclipse Lights Up Tourism Prospects

The last thing Zambia needed was a malaria alert on the eve of one of the biggest tourism draws to the country in years. But just as the sun and moon were moving inexorably closer to a total solar eclipse over the country, a malaria outbreak made the announcement mandatory. ‘'To Zambia's credit, they were forthright issuing the alert, and they may have spared visitors problems and even saved lives,'' a South African tourism official told IPS. ‘'Tourists will have faith in Zambia's honesty and concern for their welfare, and this will prove beneficial in future.''

Indeed, the solar spectacle, which will not be repeated in the region for three decades, is an opportunity to lure visitors to Southern Africa, and showcase the countries' tourism infrastructure for future repeat visits. Imusho, Sinjembela, Shangombo and Syomangwezi National Parks, where the eclipse will be visible, are advising visitors to take anti-malaria medication. Dec 4, when the eclipse will darken Zambia shortly after seven in the morning, is rainy season, and the four parks are in the malaria belt.

Phalaborwa, Punda Maria and Pafuri sections of Kruger National Park the key South African visitor areas that will experience total solar darkness a few minutes after Zambia. Malaria is not a problem there in the Mphumalanga Province, where South African President Thabo Mbeki is expected to visit. Africa's oldest game park, Kruger is making special arrangements to accommodate as many tourists as possible without compromising the delicate park ecosystem. Because of the early hour of the eclipse, gates will open between 2.30 and 4 a.m., and temporary campsites have been constructed. Up to 5000 visitors will be allowed in, provided they show receipts for special passes purchased beforehand.

To protect tourists, who wish to step out of their cars to view the spectacle from wild animals, park officials are providing armed ranger escorts at viewing sites within the ‘'100 percent dark zone''. The park intends to make money off the once-in-a-generation celestial event. Special eclipse souvenirs will be sold, and guests must pay for a five-day pass, from Dec 2-7, whether they spend the whole time at Kruger or not.

Jonathan Collins, a British citizen who is doing consulting work with a Swaziland-based health NGO, told IPS that he considers himself fortunate to be in Southern Africa at the time of the eclipse. Collins has seen one total eclipse before, in Hawaii in 1990, and he intends to drive north into neighbouring Mozambique to see the December solar spectacle. ‘'There's something mystical about an eclipse. It is no wonder the ancients were awed by them. Our ancestors saw them as omens, and drew conclusions like the world was ending. If you witnessed a total eclipse, you'll know why. The day becomes night, but it's a magical night,” he said. Collins described the eerie spectacle he saw once before through smoked glasses eclipse watchers need to protect their eyes from ultraviolet radiation. ‘'The land gradually dims around you, and you are watching the moon cut across the surface of the sun, like taking a bite out of the disc. As the moon nearly covers the sun, the land gets suddenly dark. Then there is the magical moment when the moon is completely covering the sun, and the sun's radiant corona flares out on all sides.''

Normally, the sun's corona is invisible to the naked eye. The sight of the fiery white crown flaring out from the moon's black disc is awe-inspiring, Collins said. Other eclipse witnesses noted the sudden appearance of stars and planets in the sky, which also would never be visible during daytime. Meanwhile, the far horizon shimmers with a subtle band of luminous silver and gold. This is the edge of the eclipse, beyond the moon's shadow where sunlight still strikes. Birds in the trees fall silent when the ‘'second night'' arrives, confused or lulled into believing it is night time and thus time for rest. The animal's rest is short-lived, however. While some eclipses can last several minutes, the average time of the total solar eclipse that will strike Southern Africa will be about ninety seconds. Light will again increase as the moon's disc continues to move past the sun, returning normal daylight and animal activity to usual.

Because of travellers' advisories issued by Great Britain and other nations due to unrest in Zimbabwe, that country will not fully benefit from 2002's eclipse mania. Zambia has seen increased bookings as visitors chose to go there in preference to Zimbabwe. Poor but reconstructing Mozambique is also expected see higher tourist numbers. Victor Pereira, a Maputo travel agent, told IPS, „Our country is still an unknown to most tourists. A lot of the eclipse watchers will be on cruise ships on the coast in the path of the dark zone. We want them to come on land, and see our beautiful beaches and tropical forests.”

The eclipse inducement may lay the groundwork of the region's expanding tourism industry, a sustainable and environmentally friendly source of hard currency all Southern African nations are hoping to boost. (IPS)

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