GOVERNMENT last year refused three airlines permission to fly into Zimbabwe in what aviation experts said was a move to protect the national airline from competition and loss of revenue, it was revealed this week.
Speaking to tourism players to formally introduce the Minister of Tourism and Hospitality Walter Mzembi to them, Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) chief executive Karikoga Kaseke said three airlines, NationwideÂ from South Africa, Malaysian, and Emirates from the United Arab Emirates, had expressed a desire to fly to Zimbabwe but were not allowed to, as authorities said they wanted to protect Air Zimbabwe.
â€œThe benefit the airlines could have brought to the economy in terms of traffic, revenue and tourists telling the true Zimbabwean story could have been very significant,â€ said Kaseke.
â€œReasons such as â€˜we are protecting our airlines were cited. What are we protecting it (Air Zimbabwe) from? They should learn to compete with other airlines. That is the only way they can remain competitive,â€ said Kaseke.
Kaseke said it was not wise to treat the national airline as if it started operating last year when it has been in existence for a long period.
â€œTourism ambassadors go out to market Zimbabwe. For example, in China they cannot come by rail or road. The presence of many airlines in the country also increases the amount of traffic, revenue and flexibility as to when one wants to fly to Zimbabwe,â€ said Kaseke.
Kaseke said tourism was a sensitive and fragile sector and â€œonce we (tourism industry) lose we would have lost. It is easy to lose many tourists than to convince a few to fly to a destination which has been receiving negative publicity. With the World Cup in South Africa next year, the decision did not make sense,â€ said Kaseke.
Air Zimbabwe currently has four planes flying â€” two Modern Ark (MA) 60s, Boeing 737 and a long haul 767.
A total of 18 international airlines have left the country since the economic crisis and negative publicity about Zimbabwe started 10 years ago.
These include Lufthansa, Qantas, Austrian Airlines, Swissair, Air India, Air France and TAP Air Portugal.
African airlines that are no longer fly into Harare include Egyptair, Air Mauritius, Linhas Aereas de Mocambique, Air Namibia, Royal Swazi Airlines and Air Seychelles. Air Tanzania, Ghana Airways, Air Uganda and Air Cameroon have also pulled out of the route.
Kaseke said the tourism sector hadÂ the potential to be among the leading foreign currency earners in the country.
He said every Zimbabwean had a duty to market and tell the â€œreal Zimbabwean story, not painting a wrong picture about the country which is always negativeâ€.
â€œAreas that need urgent attention in the industry are its pricing structure. We are the most expensive in the region. Destinations compete and we could lose out in this regard,â€ said Kaseke.
Kaseke said 2008 was one of the worst years in the history of the tourism industry in Zimbabwe and â€œpreliminary results so far are not pleasingâ€.
â€œEvents after the March elections and the cholera outbreak were some of the major contributors to the setbacks. A total of 17 conferences were cancelled last year alone including the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) summit,â€ said Kaseke.
Mzembi said the formation of a Government of National Unity should usher a new era and â€œthe industry should ensure that tourist packages are priced within regional and international comparativesâ€.
â€œI must consider myself very lucky because I will be working under a different political dispensation where the Global Political Agreement (GPA) brings a new culture of inclusivity,â€ he said.
â€œWe must open up our media space so that we market our country, telling the truth without exaggerating. The international media should come in and report factually, objectively, without fear or favour,â€ Mzembi said.
â€œThe excitement, the enthusiasm and the drive that is there to kickstart the (tourism) industry is amazing,â€ said Mzembi.
â€œEven as the world glides over the global recession, tourism is the only sector that has been projected to register growth,â€ said Mzembi.
Mzembi said tourism must be affordable for the local consumer and that the sector should be innovative in structuring their packages and prices.
â€œMy thrust is to come up with interventions, programmes and strategies for the development of tourism so that we put the industry back where it should be in the context of its contributions to the GDP,â€ said Mzembi.
Tourism currently contributes about 4% to GDP.
Mzembi said the industry should be contributing between 15 to 18% to the GDP by the end of 2011 largely because of the World Cup in South Africa.
Speaking to businessdigest about the impact of GPA with regards to tourism, African Sun chief executive Shingi Munyeza said any businessman who was not positioning themselves around it were pursing a lost cause.
â€œWe were swept into a nine-year abyss from February 2000 after the land reform programme. Debates that emerged around this development contributed to the negative publicity the country was receiving,â€ said Munyeza.
Munyeza said tourism was affected most because it was a sensitive area.
â€œBefore then (February 2000) about 60-70% of tourism in Zimbabwe depended on arrivals from outside. That was always a wrong position,â€ Munyeza said.
â€œWe went for the low volume high yield tourism. But in developing markets you will findÂ that those markets are dependent on their own local tourists before leaning on foreign tourists. Our failure to promote local tourism impacted negatively on the industry,â€ he said.
Munyeza said he had faith in the industry which had the potential to be one of the major foreign currency earners in the country.
â€œIn Europe with 50 pounds, one can visit more than one country but in Zimbabwe the same amount cannot cross the border,â€ he said.
â€œIn England one can think of going to Manchester from London. Itâ€™s just a thought. But in Zimbabwe for one to go to Kariba it is a weekâ€™s plan. That should be a thing of the past,â€ said Munyeza.
Munyeza said after the nine years of isolation, the industry depended on local tourists who could not afford most destinations, food and hotel bills.
He said this was despite the fact that locals paid about 10% of what international tourists were paying. Now they are paying at least about 30% of what foreigners are paying.
â€œPrice distortions should be a thing of the past as we improve our infrastructure and make our destinations affordable,â€ Munyeza said.
BY PAUL NYAKAZEYA