IT should have been a crowning moment for Zimbabwe when, in May, President Robert Mugabe signed a trilateral agreement with Zambia and the United Nations World Trade Organisation (UNWTO) to co-host the 20th Session of the UNWTO General Assembly in August next year. It also ostensibly marked yet another small step in Zimbabwe’s tentative rehabilitation into the family of nations.
Addressing delegates who witnessed the signing ceremony at the Victoria Falls bridge, Mugabe proudly said: “It is a huge responsibility, but one that we earned through the hard work of our ministers,” and promised Zimbabwe would spare no effort in delivering to the global tourism family “a uniquely African experience”.
But, crickey! the ink had hardly dried on the agreement papers when ominous storm clouds started gathering.
First was the online campaign, launched soon after the signing ceremony and waged by human rights activists in Europe and elsewhere, protesting against the appointment of Mugabe by the UNWTO as “international tourism ambassador”. The campaign however faltered, premised as it was on a fallacy peddled by the state media that Mugabe had been appointed tourism ambassador. He hadn’t!
Earlier this month, Tourism minister Walter Mzembi stunned parliament after admitting no decision had been reached on where to build the business centre to host traders during the assembly. This, after Mzembi had presented a ministerial statement informing MPs preparations for the tourism conference were at an advanced stage with 1 200 hectares of land earmarked for shopping malls, casinos, a tourism theme park and other infrastructural projects. The plans seem to exist only on paper, like the surfeit of high-sounding Zimbabwean economic turn-around programmes.
It got worse. Tourism secretary Sylvester Maunganidze delivered the clincher when he revealed Zimbabwe lied about the state of its infrastructure in order to win the bid to host tourism’s biggest global event.
“We made our bids using electronic presentations which we manipulated because we were competing,” he confessed before parliament’s Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism portfolio committee … “If other players don’t play ball, there will be an imaginary Victoria Falls which I have sold very well to the world, but which is not there.”
So, in fact, the Zimbabwean bid triumphed on the back of misrepresentations, and not through “the hard work of our ministers”, as Mugabe was evidently made to believe. But the whoppers will not foot the US$1 billion bill for the conference construction project to accommodate about 4 000 delegates from 186 countries, industry representatives and over 400 international journalists, and other projects.
Transport ministry permanent secretary Munesu Munodawafa chipped in with another shocker on Tuesday: “Government should abandon its ambitions to build the planned 4 000-seater convention centre as it was no longer feasible to complete the project in time for the event.” His advice? Zimbabwe should swallow its pride and instead build a semi-permanent structure from aluminium glass.
This all depressingly casts doubts over Zimbabwe’s capacity or preparedness to host the UNWTO event. Indications are the country has bitten off more than it can chew and risks being choked by preparation expenses.
Most disconcerting though is that we’ve been down this path before. Embarassingly, Zimbabwe lost the right to host the 2000 Nations Cup after Caf concluded Zifa had failed to secure adequate government financial guarantees for the tournament, paving way for Nigeria and Ghana to co-host the tournament. Since then Zifa has made several feeble attempts to host the tourney; all have petered out at various bidding stages.
Despite all the doubts, at least government is sure about how it will deal with sex workers expected to flock to Vic Falls for business: Anyone suspected of being a prostitute would be arrested for loitering for the purposes of prostitution, according to Maunganidze. Mind the innocent general assembly female delegates, one is tempted to warn the police.
A UNWTO team is expected in the country for routine inspection next month. Manipulated electronic presentations will just not work this time.
Mzembi was at the beginning of the month admitted at a Harare hospital “suffering from extreme exhaustion and fatigue”. While the source of the exhaustion is uncertain, thought of the preparatory task at hand, and the opprobrium Zimbabwe would endure should its hosting turn into another debacle, is enough to leave anyone involved in the preparations feeling fatigued indeed.