Eric Bloch Column

The future of Zimbabwean tourism

By Eric Bloch

TOURIST arrivals in Zimbabwe grew almost ten-fold between 1990 and 1997, but since 2000 have declined to near 1990 levels. Very rightly, in seeking significant recovery for Zimbabwe’s very distresse

d economy, government has recognised that tourism could be a very substantial element of that recovery.

Tourism provides more employment world-wide than any other economic activity. It is a major generator of foreign exchange for numerous countries, and the innumerable inputs required by the tourism sector weave an array of tentacles into almost all other economic sectors.

Tantalised by the spectacle of possible great numbers of employment opportunities, of inflows of greatly needed foreign exchange, and of substantive downstream economic activity, government’s interest in stimulating a major upturn in tourism is not surprising. It is with that in view that the Minister of Environment and Tourism, Francis Nhema, will shortly be presenting a proposed national tourism policy and master plan to the cabinet that is intended to “harmonise” activities within the tourism industry.

It is undeniable that Zimbabwe could have a thriving tourism sector, for it is richly endowed with much that is sought by the international tourist.


The incomparable Victoria Falls is justly considered to be one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The grandeur of the Matopos Hills has inspired most who have had the good fortune to frequent them. Despite the disgraceful debilitation of the wildlife resource by unrestrained poaching, nevertheless Hwange National Park, Gonarezhou, Matusadona and various conservancies compare favourably with the renowned wildlife reserves of Kenya, South Africa, Botswana and elsewhere.

The mystique of Great Zimbabwe and of the Khami Ruins continues to impress and intrigue, and the beauty of the Vumba, Nyanga and Chimanimani is spectacular, whilst the opportunities of game-viewing against the background of the almost indescribably sensational African sunsets at Kariba exceed the expectations and desires of almost all who are privileged to experience them. Supplementing these gifts of nature, Zimbabwe has many hotels, lodges, safari camps and other tourism accommodation of internationally recognised high standard.


With so much to offer, one must ponder what has caused the massive decline in tourist arrivals in Zimbabwe in recent years, and what is necessary to reverse that decline. Unless the evaluation as to the causes of the reversal of Zimbabwe’s former position as an increasingly popular tourist destination has been realistically carried out, the master plan will not provide a road map to a touristic upturn. Hopefully, that evaluation was a constructive one, for in formulating the proposed national tourism policy and master plan, the ministry has to some extent consulted and interacted with stakeholders within the tourism sector.


However, one must justifiably fear that the principal causes for the downturn in tourism will not have been identified or, if recognised, not acknowledged. Such a fear is well founded, for “leaks” as to the contents of the master plan suggest that the key focus is upon marketing initiatives, human resource development, product pricing, infrastructure development and upon countering negative media reports. It cannot be denied that all of these are very important factors, but there are some that are of even greater importance.


Amongst the most critically to be addressed must be restoration of law and order, for one of the greatest deterrents to successful promotion of Zimbabwean tourism is the very considerable deterioration in the law and order environment. Potential tourists from almost all parts of the world are very conscious of the increased numbers of car-jackings and armed robberies of recent years, bag-snatching and pick-pocketing incidents, and the extent to which they can be subjected to corrupt demands for so-called “spot fines” for spuriously alleged traffic offences.

The perceptions of the breakdown in law and order have been exacerbated (with much justification) by the pronounced reluctance of Zimbabwe’s law enforcement agencies to deal with unlawful settlers on farmlands, with those who have vandalised farm properties and expropriated crops, and equipment, of displaced farmers. Equally, the incarceration of people for months on end without bringing them to trial, the demonisation of political opponents and victimisation of many critics, and the promulgation of oppressive legislation against the media and against non-governmental organisations does not vest possible visitors to Zimbabwe with a sense of security. Nor does the expropriation of conservancies in breach of international bilateral agreements.


There is no doubt that Zimbabwe has suffered very negative press internationally and that is compounded by the wide-ranging “word-of-mouth” adverse reflections of Zimbabwe, but Zimbabwe needs to realise that much of it is self-provoked, for Zimbabwe’s politicians in general, and those in governmental hierarchy in particular, readily and continuously provide the material upon which much of the negativeness is based. And, as scathingly as Zimbabwe berates the international media for its frequent negative commentary on Zimbabwe, government, and the media controlled by it, have no hesitation in never-endingly making negative and derogatory attacks upon the very countries from which Zimbabwe wishes to attract tourists.


It is not only at the media and political levels that Zimbabwe needs a “make-over” if it wishes to attract tourists in large numbers. There are far too many occasions when tourists have found their arrival at Zimbabwean border posts most unwelcoming. Countless reports claim inordinately prolonged waits for immigration and customs processing, culminating in sullen receptions from officials, followed by aggressive road-blocks and repeated searches. That is certainly not the welcoming environment that most tourists wish for!


However, it will be pleasing if, as has been indicated, the master plan is going to address infrastructural issues. Some very positive developments are already in progress, including the extensive upgrading of Bulawayo’s airport, that which is intended for Victoria Falls, and the very satisfactory Harare International Airport.
 
However, good airports serve little purpose if there are not adequate air services. For some years Air Zimbabwe’s reputation for punctuality has been abysmal, with numerous flights being delayed for many hours, to the great inconvenience of passengers.


Especially lacking for any restoration of past volumes of tourists is the provision of flights to Kariba and to Hwange National Park, and direct flights between Harare and Victoria Falls, whilst the national airline also gives very limited service, to Bulawayo from points outside Zimbabwe.

If, as anticipated, the proposed national tourism policy and the master plan do address promotion of tourism constructively, it will be a definite step in the right direction. But it will not suffice unless it is complemented by greatly overdue political actions and policy changes.

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