By Norman Moyo
YOUR feedback on our last two columns has been encouraging. I would like to offer a different perspective on the subject of perception. There is need to appreciate that th
e economic problem currently besieging Zimbabwe is not a new phenomenon in history. Many countries have experienced tragic and equally depressing situations.
Cases in point are the United States of America which experienced the Great Depression after the Wall Street crash. In 1995, Russia faced a bank crisis in which depositors were demanding all their money back and this could have effectively paralysed their monetary system. In 1994, Canada was listed among the top world debtors. In fact, in an article published in Globe and Mail on May 12 1994, countries such as Mexico, Ghana and even war-ravaged Rwanda, all fared better than Canada in the ranking.
However all these countries adopted and executed strategies that have seen their respective recovery and functionality.
There are inherent characteristics, currently prevalent in the industry, which cripple the rebuilding of Zimbabwe. The first issue that comes to mind is the negative perception that Zimbabwe is facing as a tourist destination.
We can all argue about the moral side of the negative publicity the country has suffered. Whenever there are any fundamental policy shifts that tend to change the status quo significantly, there is bound to be resistance and protest. Zimbabwe is perceived as an unsafe destination for tourists as there is no rule of law.
Realistically, there are more tourists that get killed in South Africa, Kenya, Israel and all parts of the world than in Zimbabwe.
As a matter of fact, Zimbabwe has recorded very minimal politically motivated deaths in the past four years than any of the above mentioned countries. The strange thing though is the degree of sensitivity the tourist market has of security in Zimbabwe. When I go to industry tradeshows I get inundated with enquiries on security concerns. Unfortunately, very few of these operators even bother to ask our neighbour South Africa of any security issues despite their high crime rate.
The land reform in Zimbabwe although it affected tourism in a way, was never targeted at the tourism industry in particular. It was an internal issue and all countries have their own internal squabbles. In my last article, I encouraged the tourism players to put the moose on the table facing reality.
The perception of Zimbabwe as an unsafe destination is a reality. Efforts should be made to get rid of this negativity. It means taking a deliberate initiative to prove to the doubting Thomases that Zimbabwe is a safe destination.
Internationally, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority in particular, has done a sterling job bringing in press groups, media groups and different groups from Asia, Europe, America and Kenya to have first hand experience of the situation on the ground.
They have acknowledged that the perception is real and we need to offer another side of the story. Maybe this is time to engage into a higher gear to fight this perception. If you meet a regular Batswana, South African or Tanzanian and invite them to Zimbabwe, they are likely going to ask some ridiculous question like “Am I not going to get arrested at the airport or caught up in a dispute over land?” or something to that effect.
I have been asked this question too many a time. At least our neighbours should vouch for us in terms of security and safety. They do not. I bet trying to convince an English, Dutch, American and Kenyan man that all is well is too much of a stretch.
The industry has to agree first and foremost that tourists coming to Zimbabwe will not be harmed. This agreement means that all the tourism operators should speak and sing the same song – “Welcome to Zimbabwe”. That means no funny e-mails being sent all over the world with misleading information on the status of the country.
Arguably, the negative perception the industry is suffering was also being fuelled by some local operators who got too excited and forgot the hand that fed them. Therefore each operator should be individually asking themselves whether they are sending a positive message. Once that commitment has been made, the next step is to go out and tell our neighbours.
We should go and invite opinion makers in South Africa as our biggest trading partner. Who are these opinion makers?
These are dominant industry players such as the CEOs of South African Airways, South Africa Tourism and Rennies Group. Other opinion makers are major newspaper editors (one of our own, Trevor Ncube, being one of them), whom we can call upon to assist in influencing the perceptions of the South African market. Any testimonials from these people is likely to move the opinion of the local market significantly.
To support this initiative, we need to come up with a focused public relations campaign to promote Zimbabwe in our neighbouring markets. We should make extensive use of our tourism offices and media skills to get free news write-ups in regional newspapers. Advertising is generally expensive but as long as we have a focused public relations strategy, we can get easy and free access to the regional media.
While I appreciate efforts to market Victoria Falls as a product including the recently launched Come to Zimbabwe, Come to Victoria Falls campaign, I would like to put a word of caution here. If I were a foreign tourist, what difference will it make if I see the Victoria Falls from Zambia and go for game drives in the second largest game park in Africa, the Botswana Chobe Game Reserve, instead of Hwange National Park? What could possibly possess or motivate me to go to Zimbabwe, a perceived racist country that is listed as high risk and which at one point had an international travel ban? After all, everything they seem to be offering, I can experience in neighbouring countries. The argument put forward that the view is better from the Zimbabwe side is very subjective and might not be worth the perceived risk. Let’s work to kill the perception and also look for a stronger competitive advantage than just the view.
* Norman Moyo, Cresta Hospi-tality’s group sales and marketing manager, compiled this article. To send feedback, e-mail email@example.com