This campaign was torched off by state media reports last week claiming Mugabe and his counterpart Zambian President Michael Sata had been appointed United Nations international tourism “ambassadors” in recognition of their role in the promotion and development of tourism.
Zimbabwean and Zambia, along with the Secretary General of UNWTO, signed a trilateral agreement last Tuesday to co-host the UNWTO General Assembly in Victoria Falls and Livingston in August next year.
Tourism and Hospitality Industry minister Walter Mzembi has been quoted as saying UNWTO had awarded Mugabe and Sata the ambassadorial “status” in recognition of their efforts in showcasing tourism’s critical role in the development of Africa.
This has sparked a furore in tourism circles with many human rights activists asking how Mugabe could be a tourism ambassador given the country’s poor human rights record and destruction of tourism.
In response to the criticism, the UNWTO issued a statement, saying: “The 155 UNWTO member states decided, at the 19th Session of the UNWTO General Assembly held in October 2011 in the Republic of Korea, to hold the 20th session of the UNWTO General Assembly in Victoria Falls (Zambia/Zimbabwe) in 2013. In this framework, the UNWTO Secretary General was in Victoria Falls on 29 May 2012 to sign a tripartite agreement with both countries on the hosting of the 20th session of the General Assembly … On the occasion of the signature of the above mentioned agreement, the Secretary-General presented the Presidents of Zambia and Zimbabwe with an open letter on travel and tourism.
“This letter was sent to all heads of state and government worldwide and aims to raise awareness of the potential of tourism for development, job creation and economic growth. UNWTO does not have an ambassadors programme and that the receiving of the open letter implies no legal commitment or official title attribution to the country or recipient”.
Canada was so angry with UNWTO for “honouring Mugabe as a global leader of tourism” that it quit the organisation. Last week it formalised its withdrawal from the UN tourism body, with Canadian foreign minister John Baird saying correspondence by the UN world tourism office, in which its secretary-general reportedly praised Mugabe and Sata for their role in tourism at Victoria Falls, was the “last straw” in the country’s participation.
The UNWTO General Assembly is the world’s supreme tourism decision-making body and is expected to attract a significant number of international investors and tourists at its conference next year.
Zimbabwe Crisis Coalition regional information and advocacy co-ordinator, Dewa Mavhinga, said Mugabe was not a tourism ambassador, but people had fallen for propaganda.
“Well, we understand that no such appointment has been made, and that it is only Zanu PF trying to exaggerate the importance of a letter written to President Mugabe which is not officially recorded on the UNWTO website,” said Mavhinga.
“Mugabe has not been appointed tourism ambassador by the UN, but even the letter written to him and Zambian President Sata over the co-hosting of the UNWTO conference next year sends the wrong signal to him and the international community.”
He said the murder of MDC-T official Cephas Magura by alleged Zanu PF activists in Mudzi last month is “clear testimony Zimbabwe is not out of the woods yet”.
“This is not the time to shower Mugabe and his cronies with accolades of any sort; it is time for sustained pressure to deliver reforms that will pave the way for credible, non-violent, free and fair elections,” said Mavhinga.
An organisation called Avaaz meaning “voice” in several European, Middle Eastern and Asian languages last week denounced the supposed appointment of Mugabe.
“It may be hard to believe — but a UN body has just announced Mugabe as its latest international tourism ambassador!” reads the campaign message.
“Better known for his brutal suppression of democracy in Zimbabwe, the UNWTO has seen it fit to honour Mugabe as an international ‘leader for tourism’ and urged people to visit his ‘wonderful country’. The man who has single-handedly destroyed Zimbabwe’s international reputation with repeated human rights abuses, and Zimbabwe’s tourism industry along with it, is now an official ambassador for tourism!”
However, Mugabe has not been without support. Tawanda Kanhema, editor of Investigative Africa, a news blog on African affairs based in the United States, believes the move by Canada to quit the UNWTO General Assembly and subsequent negative campaigns are short-sighted.
“Countries boycotting the UNWTO are basically boycotting Zimbabwe’s leadership,” said Kanhema, a former Herald reporter. “Mugabe is a figurehead, but he represents a much more diverse country, a vibrant tourism industry with a lot of potential and one of the countries that has pursued the most sound conservation policies in Africa, if not in the world. The UNWTO does not just randomly pick tourism ambassadors (but) this is a recognition of the contribution that several people and organisations in Zimbabwe’s tourism sector have made to ensure the country’s competitiveness and preserve its biodiversity, not a referendum on Mugabe’s record as a leader.”
Commentator David Takawira said it was necessary the host country plays “ambassadorial” role.
“We should also note that the event is not for the president but Zimbabweans. They could try to lobby for the observation of human rights and rule of law in Zimbabwe either through demonstrations here on the particular days that the assembly will be held,” he said.
Since 2000, tourism has terribly declined due to the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe including the country’s international isolation and bad publicity.