The Eric Bloch Column

Achieving tourism turnaround
By Eric Bloch

THROUGHOUT last year, Environment and Tourism minister Francis Nhema, officials from his ministry and many others in government as well as the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) waxed eloquently and enthusiastica

lly about the tremendous recovery of the Zimbabwean tourism industry, as evidenced by considerably greater numbers availing themselves of the magnificent facilities provided by the industry.

So often did they reiterate their contention that Zimbabwean tourism was enjoying a positive turnaround that they soon convinced themselves that that was fact.

In contradistinction, those on the ground, being the tourism operators, know full well that the reverse was the case and, far from an upturn in patronage, the decline that begun to set in almost six years ago was continuing. 

They were sadly aware that they were selling fewer bed nights, and markedly lesser tickets for the diverse activities and flights, and very much else.

And, just as chickens come home to roost, so too the truth will eventually become known. Recently the authorities had no alternative but to acknowledge the realities, for upon release of the 2005 statistics it became evident that the industry had sustained an overall decline of 49% (and that after very considerable contractions already experienced over the previous five years).
   
In part the 2005 shrinkage in tourism was due to fewer tourist arrivals in Zimbabwe, in part because many of those who did come stayed for shorter periods than the average length of stay in prior years, and in part because fewer and fewer Zimbabweans could afford the luxury of patronising tourism. The rampant hyperinflation that has characterised the Zimbabwean economy has very considerably eroded spending power for most.
 
More and more are having to budget far more intensively than in the past, and must restrict their spending to absolute essentials. As important as holidays are, to maintain and enhance health and as a diversion from the rigours of daily life, nevertheless they cannot credibly be justified as essentials, and hence they are among the first of budgetary deletions for those who find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Insofar as the decrease in regional and international arrivals is concerned, the authorities would have all believe that that decrease is almost wholly due to Zimbabwe’s negative image, and that that negative image is unfounded, and occasioned only by the malicious dissemination of falsehoods by Zimbabwe’s enemies.
 
The authorities are correct that a major factor in the continuing reduction in tourist arrivals is attributable to Zimbabwe’s extremely abysmal image abroad, but that image has been created by Zimbabwean circumstances, exacerbated by government’s absolute inability to recognise and acknowledge unpalatable facts, or to do anything constructive to address those facts, and not by enemies beyond Zimbabwe’s borders.

The perception of many international tourists is that Zimbabwe is a haven for the lawless, and therefore unsafe. They read of white farmers being brutally murdered, as occurred only two months ago, but very rarely read of the murderers being apprehended, tried and convicted. 

In contradistinction, they also read many instances of persons being arrested on blatantly spurious grounds, and incarcerated for prolonged periods of time before, occasionally, being brought to trial. And they hear of frequent instances upon which the so-called guardians of law resort to brute force, disregarding the fundamental principles of justice and human rights. 
When they do hear such allegations, they accept them as fact, on the one hand because of the extent of the abuses of power during Operation Murambatsvina, and on the other hand because the frequency of the allegations is seen as giving them credibility. They are also aware of the magnitude of crimes against people, ranging from an extensive number of carjackings to numerous cases of armed robberies, and an extensive number of burglaries.
 
Such an image is seen to be, very substantially, factually correct, particularly because reports of such criminality are not very rare, but extremely frequent.

The second key perception is that Zimbabwe’s economy is so distraught that it is unable to cater for the normal and usual needs of the tourist.The visitors who contemplate travel to Zimbabwe are concerned that, having flown in to Harare Airport or Bulawayo’s Joshua Nkomo International Airport, there would   thereafter be no flight to take them to Victoria Falls, due to a lack of aviation fuel, or an absence of essential aircraft spares.   And they are concerned as to whether, if they do reach their destination, there will be the flights to enable them to access their scheduled departure from Zimbabwe.
  
In like manner, they are concerned whether, while in Zimbabwe, fuel will be available for game-viewing drives and river cruises, whether the air-conditioning systems of the hotels will be operative, or out of commission due to lack of spares, and how often will they be inconvenienced by power-supply breakdowns. They also fear a lack of access to normal tourist perquisites, such as camera film.

The negative perceptions are reinforced by concerns that Zimbabwe has become an extremely expensive destination. In part that is a psychologically driven perception by the wide-ranging usage of three rates of charges by hotels, safari operators and activity providers, applied according to whether the tourist is a Zimbabwean resident, a resident of a neighbouring territory, or resident further afield.
  
In part the periodical high cost of Zimbabwean tourism is due to the country’s very pronounced inflation, which is partially driven by the rates of exchange in the “alternative” parallel and black markets (such as fuel costing about $200 000 per litre, as distinct from the official price of $22 000 per litre,) while the tourist must exchange his currency in official markets, at rates approximately half of those in the alternative markets.

The costs for the tourist to Zimbabwe are very considerably increased by the massive charges raised by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management, who now levy gargantuan charges for each and every entry into the Victoria Falls Rain Forest, and into any national park.

In some instance it is a case of multiple charges, such as upon entry into Matopos National Park, and then prior to ascending World’s View. Not only are there immense charges upon entry to national parks, but often also an array of other charges, such as fees for launching boats on Lake Kariba. 

For those tourists who are motorists, there are other duplications of charges, such as the levying of carbon tax upon entering Zimbabwe, and then $1 000 built into every litre of fuel purchased.

It is not unsurprising, therefore, that so many decide that their tourism patronage should be targeted at Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, Kenya and elsewhere, rather than Zimbabwe  (to such an extent that Zambia now proclaims itself on CNN as “the home of the Victoria Falls”).

Zimbabwe has a wealth of tourism attractions, including the spectacular magnificence of Victoria Falls, the grandeur of the Matopos, its outstanding wildlife resource in Hwange National Park, Matusadona, the Save Conservancy and Gonarezhou as well as Lake Kariba, Nyanga, Vumba, Chimanimani, Khami Ruins and much more. 

What it no longer has is a tourism-conducive environment, and it needs to do something to re-create it.

Until now, all it has done is to bewail the tourism decline, blame others for it, or delude itself that the decline has been halted and reversed (such as the now endless claims of one and two years ago that all the tourism support lost from Western markets had been replaced with a tremendous development in arrivals from tourists from the East (all of 28 000 in 2004) and that, therefore, tourism was enjoying a recovery and upturn). 

It is time that the facts be recognised, acknowledged and addressed, including restoration of law and order, achieving genuine economic recovery, containing charges, and then resorting to genuine tourism promotion, and powerful publicity evidencing the changes which will have transformed Zimbabwe to one of the world’s greatest tourist destinations.

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