IT was odd that during recent stays in Bulawayo I found few people â€“â€“ with the predictable exception of Bulawayo Publicity Association boss Val Bell â€“â€“ ecstatic about Zimbabwe Tourism Associationâ€™s plan to move the once fairly prestigious annual tourism expo there from Harare.
ZTA functionaries claim the conference centre at Rainbow Towers is now too small for the October 16-19 “Sanganai” show, to which, they say, hundreds of exhibitors are beating a path and a similar number of blue-chip travel trade buyers will either return or have been especially invited as part of ZTAâ€™s attempt to “sell” this country, especially the western and southern bits.
So theyâ€™re moving it to ZITFâ€™s under-utilised Famona showgrounds.
Maybe someone should tell ZTA the western bits of our country, like Victoria Falls and Hwange, are doing not-too-badly, thanks, mainly on the back of international multi-destination day-trips or short-term arrivals, principally from bases in South Africa, booming Livingstone, the breathtaking Chobe/Kasane and Okavango Delta areas of Botswana and even Namibia.
The south of Zimbabwe is also partially out of the countryâ€™s self-inflicted travel doldrums, with many travellers using hotels and lodges en route to and/or from Beitbridge or Plumtree. These are people forced across our frontiers on family shopping-sprees or business buying trips due to empty shelves and “nil” wholesale stock inventories, or those having a much-needed sanity break away from this countryâ€™s debilitating stresses.
Itâ€™s the Eastern Districts players with world-class facilities in the Vumba, Juliasdale and Nyanga and Zambezi Valley operators (especially Kariba now, again, without scheduled air services, despite Air Zimbabwe getting Chinese planes) feeling the pinch severely. They have been so doing through countless years of fuel shortages and security concerns, along with fellow operators in the Lowveld and Masvingo.
While I wish Sanganai and all participants well, I must ask where all these exhibitors, buyers, specialist Press and members of the tourism public will stay in Zimbabweâ€™s second city?
Combine all two, three and four star Bulawayo bedrooms and it has insufficient capacity. Harare, however, has rooms for Africa and, in the unlikely event the Conference Centre really is under space stress, that venue is within spitting distance of under-utilised Harare Showgrounds!
If held in the capital, most of the all-important buyers (hopefully, not mainly from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Albania or Anatolia) neednâ€™t rely on Air Zimbabwe to get them from international flight arrivals to the point-of-sale.
But, Iâ€™m sure “the trade” will enjoy Matabelelandâ€™s famous warm welcome, good food and drink (assuming there is any in “Skies” then) and its central position to see most of Zimbabweâ€™s attraction.
What I did hear in Bulawayo was constant moans about the brain-drain hitting Zimbabwe tourism. The faster we train good chefs, waiters, barmen, front-of-house, housekeeping even engineering staff and line managers, the quicker they leave, wooed by forex packages; perhaps, better terms of service.
On three recent trips to Botswana, Zimbabweans were general managers or deputies of prestigious properties visited.
Cresta is, of course, Zimbabwean-owned. They run a Cresta Lodge in Gaborone, as they do in Msasa (the Botswana operation seemed already far more upmarket, with massive extensions and a refurb planned).
At both Cresta Lodges are tweely-named Chatters Restaurants. Gaboroneâ€™s, however, seemed an eatery of choice, under an impressive rotunda on three different open-plan levels, with a stunningly well-stocked sunken bar. The restaurant offers a groaning buffet display of a quality and quantity of food I had candidly forgotten we ever saw here and comprehensive a la carte.
There is a very talented (Zimbabwean) girl entertainer, stage-named Mandy Mash (presumably from Mashonaland?). General manager is amiable Jonathan Cox, who was at Cresta Jameson under Steve Spurgeon and Gordon Addams. Heâ€™s returned to southern Africa from the delights of Tanzaniaâ€™s blinding white beach, turquoise sea Indian Ocean resorts to run a tight ship on the edge of the Kalahari Desert!
His buffet was mouth-watering: soups, croutons, rolls and butter, fresh colourful crisp salads, main courses of hand-carved roasts, casseroles and curry, decadent puddings in Technicolor hues, cheese and coffee for P120 (about US$20).
I wasnâ€™t very hungry, having ploughed my way through a trenchermanâ€™s “full English” breakfast (of the sort few Englishman have seen regularly since Suez!) at Falcon Crest Suites, a sparkling boutique hotel where I stayed.
Then Iâ€™d done considerable justice to an unplanned mammoth fillet steak roll with a mountain of golden chips and salad at an impromptu working lunch by Gaborone Sunâ€™s sparkling pool.
Before entering Game Cityâ€™s Aladdinâ€™s Cave stores, I was further fortified by the nicest cappuccino tasted in years at quaintly named Mugg & Bean (where biscotti are to die for).
Due to this gastronomic assault course I ordered prawn tagliatelli, assuming, as in most Zim outlets, there would be a mere token presence of crustaceans.
Wrong! It was crammed with beautiful pink prawns of good size, nestling in a mountain of al dente home-made pasta, anointed with a rich creamy-cheesy sauce at P75.
I surrendered less than half way through a dish which, a week later: seven days back on the enforced world-beating Giddy Gono/Zanu PF weight-loss diet (eat little, very little or nothing as often as you like!) I would cheerfully murder for.
Hating waste, I was pleased when two giggly-girlish companions, from the world of Botswana travel mags, despite twin sylph-like figures, having finished their buffet “mains”, polished off my surplus pasta as quick as a flash.
As one of the pair is originally from Zim, that could explain it!
By Dusty Miller