By Tafirenyika L Wekwa Makunike
WHEN the people of Zimbabwe finally decide that the economy is far more important than childish posturing and insults, including composing supposedly motivating national jingl
es spiced with suggestive dances, then tourism could be one of the sectors that can be rapidly ramped up for the sustenance of the nation.
I say “people” because I realise as a people we can no longer abdicate our national responsibility to do something about our nation’s future to some egotistical coterie of politicians blundering from one mistake to another.
We potentially have the best competitive advantages in this part of the world if we stop our “bvoo-pfoo” approach to national issues.
In 2002 the cost of board in a basic three to four-star hotel in South Africa was about R400 while the exchange rate was about one US dollar to R10.
By the end of 2003 the same accommodation had gone up to R700 while their exchange rate had strengthened to about R6,60 but notwithstanding that, they have continued to witness phenomenal growth in tourist arrivals. It does not need a rocket scientist to notice that the largest tourism market in our part of the world is slowly pricing itself from a very affordable destination range to something pricey.
I have had the benefit of travelling extensively in Africa and I know for a fact that apart from Kenya, we have always had some of the warmest welcoming people with a disarming smile in this part of the globe. I am not talking of the front hotel people who are paid to put on that plastic smile, but common people one encounters along the whole value chain that can potentially make a tourist’s visit memorable.
Of course, of late a number of Zimbabweans have become relatively more cynical arising mainly from a depreciating economic environment and being continuously fed a diet of sovereignty and occasional insults. Even before we get to the traditional tourism attributes we had a potential winner to cause the South African cricket team to sneak into the Vumba for a great escape last year.
Traditionally as a family we normally take an end of year vacation somewhere in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe to unwind and recharge our batteries for the coming battle in the coming year. Even the Herald got it right on the festive season bookings this time for nearly all the good places were fully booked.
We initially booked ourselves over the Internet but despite getting a confirmation e-mail my wife was utterly amazed when told by a discourteous lady at a central reservation office in Harare that they did not have any record of our booking. They seemed to forget that a rudely denied customer during the high season is a potentially dissatisfied customer in the low season.
When we tried a South African-based Internet booking agent they got back to us within minutes with a promise of getting us a place provided we were prepared to pay in rand. Of course as a “son of the soil” as Wilson Katiyo would say, I believe it is my privilege to pay in local currency. Several direct calls later we managed to string together some combination bookings in Hwange and Victoria Falls, resulting in a refreshing festive season, something we could not possibly have got on some crowded Durban beach.
Of course there is a price to be paid, particularly if one is travelling by road from South Africa. The biggest stumbling block is Beitbridge where one has to endure some chaotic pushing and shoving for hours.
If you are unfortunate someone might pick your pockets in the process. If I was a foreigner coming in to spend my vacation I would not endure this one moment longer but for sons of the soil like us it is like someone in an abusive relationship: you keep coming back hoping that the things will get better.
For a country with over 70% unemployment it would do no harm to employ some youths to at least organise the queues and ensure that arrivals join the right queues instead of being told by a totally disinterested official after wasting hours that are in the wrong line. While they terrorise the poor cross-border woman, the rich are crossing the border with under-declared luxury vehicles. Perhaps Gersham Pasi can make unannounced visit to the border posts during peak times and witness for himself how customer-friendly service goes out of the window at this crowded border post.
We also managed to spend a day on the Livingstone side of the Victoria Falls and there are some good things happening on the Zambia side. As my Zambian counterpart Simemba once revealed to me their slogan was, to paraphrase it in Zanu PF lingo, “copper was the economy the economy was copper”.
According to him, “thanks to Uncle Bob, Zambia, with a population slightly more than Zimbabwe’s, is now actively cultivating a growing agricultural and tourism industry.
The bad news from the new hotels in Livingstone is that their rates are virtually more than twice the rates charged on the Zimbabwe side.
Travelling along Victoria Falls road one cannot fail to notice the neglected Lupane and to even call it a provincial capital is insulting. We hope the de facto prime minister of Zimbabwe spares a thought for this centre on his way to dole out goodies to Tsholotsho.
While we have managed to insult our traditional markets at least there seems to be a noticeable growth in Asian arrivals. Business people do not care much about the colour of their customers.
* Tafirenyika L Wekwa Makunike is a business consultant based in Johannesburg. He is contactable on email@example.com