Overwhelmingly, the tourists were from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, from the Far East (and especially China and Japan), and from the US, although some were from neighbouring states such as South Africa.
The hotels were remarkably full, and some restaurants so busy that advance reservations were essential. Many of the hotels and restaurants were of internationally-recognised high quality, as were the tour operators and support services.
A manager of one hotel complex of over 300 rooms informed me that he, his directors and management, would develop major concerns if average occupancy declined below 70%.
Comparisons with the circumstances of Zimbabwean tourism were inevitable, with most hotels in the Zimbabwe tourist areas reporting average occupancies of less than 30%. Whilst in no manner belittling and denigrating Namibia’s tourist attractions, many of which were magnificent, spectacular and near unique, it is undeniable that Zimbabwe has an immense amount of extraordinary tourist attractions.
These include the amazing splendour of Victoria Falls, the grandeur of the Matobo Hills, the mystic of Great Zimbabwe, the beauty of Nyanga, Bvumba and Chimanimani, the vast scenic and other attractions of Lake Kariba, a wealth of wildlife of innumerable species, and much, much else.
And yet Zimbabwe, which was renowned for its very considerable tourism, is now eclipsed by the numbers of regional and international tourists that direct their custom to Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique and other countries in East, Central and Southern Africa. So great is the disparity that inevitably one must ponder why it is that Zimbabwe’s pronounced destination role of the past is no more, whilst others are enjoying a surge in tourism.
Recently, the perception of many is that the decline in Zimbabwean tourism in Zimbabwe was primarily attributable to alleged economic sanctions against Zimbabwe. In fact, no country imposed travel bans precluding their nationals from travelling to Zimbabwe (although, on occasion, some countries did issue travel warnings, cautioning the possibilities of tourists confronting violence).
More recently, the paucity of international tourism patronage has also been attributed to the global financial recession. Whilst, undoubtedly, the impacts of that recession will have curtailed the international travel of some, the hard fact is that many international tourists continue to visit other countries in Africa.
Clearly, therefore, that recession cannot be a primary cause of the decimated tourist support for Zimbabwe. Instead, bearing in mind the very great amount that Zimbabwe has to offer the tourist, there must be other reasons which create the proportionately low volumes of tourist arrivals in Zimbabwe.
In fact, the reasons are many. First and foremost is the very negative image that Zimbabwe has as a safe destination. The world at large is not only very aware of the frequent Zimbabwean malabuse of law and order, with inordinately frequent unjustified and very prolonged arrests and grossly excessive assertion of authority by some of the “guardians of law and order”.
And that awareness is intensively exacerbated by the recurrent, incontrovertibly well-founded, reports of violent farm invasions, encompassing brutal attacks upon farmers and their families, and highly-condemnatory destruction and theft of property.
Inevitably, even if without substantive foundation, potential tourists fear that they can become like victims of Zimbabwean authorities’ contempt for the fundamental principles and norms of international law, of human and property rights, and of Zimbabwe’s own laws.
In like manner, they are conscious of the innumerable police roadblocks on all major national roads, and that whilst it does not always occur, there are all too often instances of spurious allegations of traffic or other law breaks, devised solely in order to exact bribes (or so-called, unreceipted, spot fines).
Zimbabwean contempt for law causes a widespread perception of Zimbabwe being an undesirable tourist destination.
These tourist concerns are intensified by fears that Zimbabwe will undergo intensified political unrest, with concomitant adverse repercussions upon “innocent bystanders”, including international tourists.
The recurrent confrontationalism demonstrated by much of the hierarchy of the former ruling party, the divisiveness promoted by state-controlled media, and the belligerence demonstrated internationally, such as the pronounced antagonism to the international community and against whites as characterised by the President’s interview on CNN last week, have all been deterrents to international tourism, and continue to be.
Other factors also discourage tourist patronage, of which one of the foremost is the grievously defective reliability and quality of service delivery of Zimbabwean parastatals, of various arms of government, and some local authorities.
The tourist does not wish to suffer the discomforts of recurrent interruptions in electricity supplies, uncertainty and irregularity of water delivery, and of horrendously defective and inadequate telecommunication services.
Similarily, the tourist is appalled when he or she has to expend anything between six and fifteen laws to complete border processing procedures at Beitbridge, when there is only one Immigration official on duty at Harare International Airport, and other hurdles to entry into, or exit from, Zimbabwe.
The tourist is similarily dismayed, and often disgusted, when airport toilets are without water, toilet paper or soap. In like manner, encountering innumerable potholes in city roads and on national highways do not accord comfort or satisfaction to tourists.
Most of the tourist industry vigorously endeavours to maximise service quality and delivery, but are hampered in so doing by not only the disastrously poor services of most parastatals, but also by working capital inadequacies, and by frequent losses of skilled personnel to neighbouring countries and further afield.
Thus, despite the endeavours to provide quality comfort and service, most hotels, tour operators and restaurants have undergone lowering of standards (without concomitant lowering of charges!), and thereby have contributed to the extent that tourists have been favouring destinations other than Zimbabwe.
If Zimbabwean tourism is to attain real and substantive recovery, regaining its place as a foremost African destination, government, the tourist industry, commerce, the financial sector, parastatals, and others must strive intensively to remove the fears of tourists, with credible assurances and evidence of real security, and to upgrade service delivery.
If the existing massive barriers to tourist expectations are not removed, Zimbabwe’s tourist industry recovery will be minimal, whilst Zimbabwe’s neighbours will thrive more and more.