By Ray Matikinye
CLIMB over a gentle incline along the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls highway and a roadside shop gradually looms, marking the entrance to Lupane growth point that is billed to
become the future provincial capital of Matabeleland North.
A few metres from the verge of the highway, 32-year-old Kizito Tshabangu stands up from a wooden stool placed in the midst of various carvings spread on the ground and twists his torso in both directions to unloosen cramped limbs.
“I hardly get any customers these days. This period of the year towards the festive season used to be our best time selling artefacts to tourists,” reminisces Tshabangu, who bemoans that he spends most of his time spitting and polishing the stone carvings to maintain their shine despite little hope of getting his wares sold.
Tshabangu specialises in exquisite carvings made out of teak found in abundance in the surrounding forest. He has diversified into stone carvings too.
“At times I feel like abandoning it all and just going home. But I have a family to feed and children to send to school so I convince myself that better times lie ahead,” he says without much optimism.
His despondency is illustrative of the tourism industry’s failure to rise from the ashes of Zimbabwe’s economic and political environment like the proverbial phoenix.
A boom in tourism during the few years preceding the often-violent farm invasions in 2000 and its attendant political upheaval brought about a legion of wood and stone carvers keen to capitalise on an influx of tourists driving along major highways.
Chug along major highways across the country today and witness small communities of wood and stone carvers living in flimsy plastic or pole and mud shacks, waiting in vain for customers. These communities flourished as informal foreign currency exchange points while the tourism boom lasted. The decline in business for the roadside wood and stone carvers serves as a barometer for the sharp decline in the motoring tourist.
“Now I am lucky to get a single buyer in a week,” Tshabangu says.
Statistics from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe indicate that receipts from tourism peaked at US$232 million in 1996 and slumped to US$124 million in 2000. They then slid to US$43,40 million in 2001.
During the decade 1989 to 1999 tourist arrivals grew at an average 17,5% while tourist receipts increased at an average 18%. However, the prevailing political environment has witnessed the sector experience its worst performance.
But the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) says it is working hard to ensure that the “Look East” tourism policy becomes a success story, expecting the industry to ride on the back of the Asian market.
“Asia is a new market for Zimbabwe and therefore might take some time to grow to high levels that we may all want them to reach,” says ZTA research and development director Simba Mandinyenya. “But things are looking good as Asian visitors continue to rise. These are just signs of good fortunes to come for us and so we should be patient.”
According to the ZTA, Chinese visitors recorded the highest increase in the number of tourist arrivals to Zimbabwe from January to September 2004. A total of 24 000 Chinese visited the country during the period, representing a 392% increase compared to the 4 960 arrivals in 2003.
Despite government claims of a boom, Zimbabwe Council of Tourism chairman Shingi Munyeza says his organisation, which represents the bulk of tourism companies, has yet to see the benefits of its policy.
“The Chinese move in large numbers but they are bad spenders. The majority come through South Africa.”
Statistics from ZTA do not impress Tshabangu who says his business counts on the motoring tourist.
“Our customer base is the motorist, particularly those from South Africa. Since the fuel situation began to deteriorate in 2001, there has been fewer and fewer such tourists driving along this highway,” he explains.
So to maintain a steady flow of business some of Tshabangu’s colleagues have decided to take their artefacts to the customers at Victoria Falls where tourists fly in and fly out.
“We cannot all go to Victoria Falls where police constantly harass those selling artefacts,” he says.
Zimbabwe’s tourism industry has been floundering despite efforts by various organisations to shore up its flagging fortunes. In September the National Economic Consultative Forum completed an interactive CD-Rom meant to boost tourist inflows ahead of an international exposition to be held in Aich, Japan, next March.
Mandinyenya says his organisation has also identified key zones in the Shashi-Limpopo Beitbridge, Great Zimbabwe and Gonarezhou Transfrontier Park that it intends to develop because of their high potential for tourists.