Those who chose to travel around Africa before or after the Cup seemed to develop the uncanny ability to avoid Zimbabwe by going through Mozambique and Tanzania, or Botswana and Zambia. It was initially estimated that 30% of these travellers would pass through Zimbabwe; obviously this wasn’t the case.
As one of the few tourists who ventured to Zimbabwe during this time, I was disappointed to see the tourist spots and markets so quiet. I experienced a warm, welcoming side of Zimbabwe, one which is unexpected considering the impression imparted by negative coverage in the West. I couldn’t help but wonder where all the other tourists were and, in my opinion, they were missing out. But then, having pleasant people and unique tourist attractions doesn’t necessarily make a country attractive to travellers.
For a tourist, the place which most vividly illustrates the differences between Zimbabwe and other Southern African nations is Victoria Falls. Comparing the two sides of the Zambezi River is a stark reminder of the losses suffered by Zimbabwe’s tourism industry and its potential to rise again. The Victoria Falls Hotel, overlooking the Zambezi, is testament to the heritage of Zimbabwean hospitality and tourism. It’s a good example of what Zimbabwe lost and what it could someday gain back. Travellers to Africa used to flock to the Zimbabwe side to take advantage of what most people say is the best view of the falls. Now the town of Victoria Falls, on the Zimbabwe side, is run down and seemingly deserted. People sell 100 trillion-dollar bills as souvenirs to the odd tourist who comes through.
And where Zimbabwe once flourished, now Zambia is the main beneficiary of the tourism generated by the world famous water fall. The town of Livingstone is prosperous and receives a healthy trade from the travellers who crowd the backpackers and hotels.
But why do so many tourists shun Zimbabwe, preferring instead to travel to other countries which seemingly offer more to tourists?
In 1999, Zimbabwe hosted 1,4 million tourists, earning US$250 million in revenue. By 2005, the figure had dropped to only US$40 million in tourism revenue. During these first years of Zimbabwe’s decline, potential travellers, who would once have considered Zimbabwe as a travel destination, were now fearful of the violence they saw on their TVs and newspapers. The land reform programme and pre-election violence was widely publicised and the coverage did long-term damage to the Zimbabwean economy in terms of tourism and investment. Political instability seems to be the major factor in Zimbabwe’s lack of credibility as a tourist nation and senior figures in the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority have long claimed that the key to prosperity in the industry is a climate of political stability.
Since the formation of the unity government there have been signs that a perceived increase in political stability has encouraged tourists. A modest rise in the revenue gained from tourism came soon after the new government took power.
While it is likely there was a perception that the unity government was a more stable form of leadership for Zimbabwe and therefore the country itself was a safer bet for travel, it could also be the case that the West’s distaste for Robert Mugabe is a contributing factor. The image of Mugabe and Zanu PF was diluted upon the formation of the coalition between the two parties and accordingly and Zimbabwe became more palatable to the Western traveller.
While political instability and negative coverage in the West have been a good enough reason for many Western travellers to stay away, there are now more practical and simple reasons for tourists to avoid Zimbabwe. Power cuts are a chronic short coming in rural areas and even the cities.
During my time in Harare power cuts occurred on an almost daily basis. I witnessed desperate residents digging trenches and laying new cables themselves rather than waiting for someone who may or may not fix the problem. This ingenuity is impressive to any outsider, but the fact that Zimbabwe’s government puts its public in a position where they have to use their ingenuity in order to survive is not.
Wild animals, once so abundant in Zimbabwe, have now become scarce. Driving from South Africa the difference is obvious when the Limpopo is crossed. On the South African side the wildlife can often be seen at the road side but once the border is crossed scarcely an animal is seen. The fact that they have been snared by villagers to feed their families is once again down to mismanagement at government level and it’s precisely this sort of tragic situation which turns travellers away.
Yet the potential is there. The eastern highlands, Great Zimbabwe, Lake Kariba, Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park all wait for the changes which will see them bustling with tourists once again. The hunting and fishing industries still draw large numbers of wealthy tourists and, increasingly, Zimbabwe is being seen as a desirable safari destination. Since the formation of the unity government, articles and advertisements for Zimbabwe have begun to pop up in travel magazines. They show mainly safari trips, cruises down the Zambezi, a week in a lodge living with African wildlife. It’s not exactly the real Zimbabwe and you could be forgiven for seeing a certain amount of self interest in the promotion of tourism in a country with such a government record of human rights violations and corruption. Those who travel here will seldom see the extent of the poverty faced by the population or the violence used by Mugabe to consolidate his rule. But the message that tourists should consider Zimbabwe as a travel destination is not intended only for safari companies to line their pockets, but for the population of Zimbabwe to find its feet.
By the time the tourism industry is at the height it once was, Zimbabwe will be well on the way to a full recovery. Tourism itself cannot save Zimbabwe but it can at least be part of a process which leads to the eventual recovery of the country. For this recovery to take place certain changes need to come about. The image of Mugabe and Zanu PF is such in the Western world that for Zimbabwe to appeal to tourists, as it has done in the past, Mugabe must not be at the helm. In basic terms he is the major deterrent to tourists.
During my time travelling through Zimbabwe the questions I was most often asked when I told someone I was from New Zealand was “why would you want to come here”? It’s a hard question to answer but the truth is Zimbabwe has something special about it which I can’t put my finger on. The people are particularly warm and cheerful, the streets are safe compared to the likes of South Africa.
I hope for the sake of Zimbabwe that next year’s possible elections are free and fair and tourists are once again attracted to the beauty of the people and the land in great numbers.
Sam Gregory is a foreign journalist who recently visited Zimbabwe.
By Sam Gregory