CONFLICTING statistics about the country’s tourism arrivals and foreign currency earnings are beginning to generate debate within the business sector.
While politicians maintain tourism is booming, the situation on the ground tells a different story, with hotel occupancies nose-diving countrywide and plush hotels now white elephants, according to industry officials.
To try and salvage the collapsing tourism sector the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) gave a dispensation to hotels and tourist specialist services to receive payment in foreign currency.
The central bank said this measure had become necessary to improve convenience for the country’s visitors, while at the same time encouraging dwindling foreign exchange inflows.
Government last week appointed a nine-member taskforce, mandated to solve the crippling foreign currency situation.
However, tourism has been singled out as being one of the sectors where officials are not declaring their foreign currency to the RBZ.
The Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA), whose role is to supply information on earnings and arrivals and departures, refused to make the information available to businessdigest.
Tichaona Jokonya, Zimbabwe’s longest-serving ambassador since Independence, is ZTA’s chief executive officer.
When contacted about questions sent two weeks ago to ZTA, a secretary said Jokonya would not respond because “the independent media is not in the business of promoting the country but of highlighting negative issues only – especially when writing about tourism”.
She said while the questions had arrived on Jokonya’s desk, she doubted whether there would be any responses.
“You only concentrate on negative issues which tarnish the image of the country,” she said.
The same set of questions were however sent to the Zimbabwe Council for Tourism (ZCT) which immediately responded.
Prominent hotelier and Zimsun Leisure Group chief executive officer Shingi Munyeza is ZCT president.
A senior ZCT official, also an hotelier, Paul Matamisa, said the statistics given should not conflict because they came from the same source.
“There should be no conflicts considering the source of the data is one and the same – the Central Statistical Office (CSO),” Matamisa said. “However, the information indicates that between last year and this year, tourism has grown by 40% judging by the arrival statistics given by the CSO.”
The CSO has been severely criticised for its inflation figures dished out monthly. Analysts question what methods are used to quantify the basket of goods used in its survey, most of which have disappeared from supermarket shelves and are only available on the parallel market.
Matamisa, using CSO statistics, said arrivals from Africa grew by 47%, Europe 67%, the Americas 19%, Asia 80% and Oceania 63%.
He said this related to the first six months of this year (January/June) in comparison to last year. No actual figures were however given.
Analyst Eric Bloch has pointed out that government is using figures for cross-boarder shoppers as part of its “arrivals” statistics.
ZTA chairman and NMB Holdings Ltd deputy managing director James Mushore said last year Zimbabwe earned US$75 million from tourism, which was expected to contribute 2,5% to the gross domestic product.
Matamisa said for Zimbabwe to revive its once lucrative tourism sector it should start off with extensive marketing.
He said this included image-building and aggressive marketing through the tourism and trade attaches in all countries where the country is represented.
“This of course calls for huge financial resources,” he said. “Concerted consistent government support for tourism all round should also see fuel supplies and transport systems sorted out. Air Zimbabwe requires a huge capital injection to revive it. It is suffering from both lack of human resources as well as shortage of equipment to service local, regional and international routes to the satisfaction of the markets and stakeholders.”
Asked what was being done about the Victoria Falls which is now being marketed by neighbours South Africa and Zambia, Matamisa said if Zimbabwe fails to plug the hole, others were bound to jump in and take advantage of the situation.
“As it is, it is not only South Africa but others around are seeing the opportunities of marketing their destinations and using Victoria Falls as the draw-card,” he said.
“In any case Zimbabwe stands to gain whichever way the tourist has come. Our challenge is to let tourism spread countrywide.”
Matamisa said the ZCT would like to see a situation where there was one realistic exchange rate in Zimbabwe, which is managed through the banks and the permanent eradication of the parallel market.
While the Zimbabwe dollar is officially pegged at $824 against the United States greenback, it is going for as much as $6 000 on the parallel market.
Asked what else was being done to market the country other than the video and song launched at a lavish ceremony in South Africa by Information minister Jonathan Moyo, Matamisa said various organisations used various tools.
“Others, and that is in the main today, use the electronic media, brochures and the Zimbabwe CD rom not forgetting the trade shows round the world including our own Travel Expo,” he said. “We know that ZTA have recently dispatched four new attachés to Johannesburg, China, France and Malaysia.
“Tourism is definitely on the mend, we only need to influence the visitors to visit the rest of the country besides Victoria Falls and then the effects can be felt everywhere.”
Insiders however say tourism has slipped from being a major foreign currency earner as tourist arrivals have shrunk drastically on the back of adverse publicity associated with the perceived breakdown in the rule of law.
“Competition in this sector is extremely keen making it an arduous task to reclaim lost business,” a banker said. “This sector’s recovery depends on the stabilisation of the political and economic climate.”