UNWTO: Mzembi promises world-class organisation

FROM the immaculate, modern Madrid Barajas International Airport arrival terminal through well maintained streets in a state-of-the-art shuttle taxi service, the Zimbabwean delegation attending the just ended Feria International de Turismo en Espana (Fitur) Show in Madrid Spain, got a feel of what it really means to host an international tourism event.

Report by Taurai Mangudhla

During the week-long event the delegation, led by Zimbabwe Tourism minister Walter Mzembi, made every effort to convince the conference and the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) secretariat that the international community should expect the same level of organisation, but in an African context, at the UNWTO general assembly to be co-hosted with neighbouring Zambia.

Since Zimbabwe won the bid to co-host the UNWTO 20th general assembly with Zambia in 2011, much attention has been focused on the two host nations, particularly Zimbabwe’s state of preparedness.

Madrid and the Victoria falls are worlds apart. The lowly town of Victoria Falls is set in a pristine natural habitat.

The airport needs upgrading and can only manage a minute fraction of the traffic handled by Barajas, the largest airport in Spain and the world’s 11th busiest.

Given Zimbabwe’s perennial budget deficit and revenue underperformance, much focus has been on the country’s financial capacity to host such a mega event.

A lot has been said about the capacity of the infrastructure in Victoria Falls — the airport, shuttle services, accommodation and conference facilities — to handle the huge influx of delegates and tourists during the
event.

Concern has also been raised about Zimbabwe’s political environment in the face of looming elections just before or after the conference, given the country’s history of successive violent and disputed polls.

Mzembi told a second trilateral meeting involving general assembly co-hosts Zambia and the UNWTO secretariat in Madrid that the secretariat is mostly worried about Zimbabwe’s political will to make the event a success.

Mzembi assured UNWTO members and potential investors that there was a high level of commitment from government to host a successful event.

“There is commitment at the highest level in government, that is the presidium, with all the three principals in the inclusive government agreeing on the importance of the event,” said Mzembi.

The three principals recently approved the draft constitution which would be followed by a referendum. The process sets the tone for a watershed election, likely in the second half of the year.

The decision to hold elections before the UNWTO general assembly, Mzembi said, is a strategic move by the principals to allow for a change of government before the event and avoid disruptions from election preparations during the historic event.

“The principals agree that this is a unique branding opportunity for any government that emerges after the election.”

Currently, preparations are at an advanced stage with the two host nations recently approving the event’s programme.

Mzembi said Zimbabwe’s corporate world has partnered government to ensure the tourism conference’s success.

“There is enough goodwill locally and internationally to make this a success. Corporates such as, for example, Mbada Diamonds, Econet (Wireless), NetOne and Telecel are helping us to prepare. Mbada Diamonds has taken (over the funding of) the reception, which is the welcoming ceremony and I can assure you that all the events are being taken up by companies,” Mzembi said.

Government has set aside US$12 million for preparations of the general assembly.

The fund is not inclusive of the country’s aspiration for legacy projects like new hotels and conference facilities which would be built in the resort town of Victoria Falls.

In December, government approved construction of a semi-permanent conference centre at Elephant Hills resort in Victoria Falls.

The aluminum glass fabrication structure with a lifespan of 30 years and capacity of more than 1 000 delegates is set to be the main conference centre for the assembly.

Sources close to the development said government is working with private players to finalise the project, including proper evaluation.

Construction of the project takes three months. However, Zimbabwe is yet to select an official airline for the conference as well as adopt a friendly visa regime.

Recently, UNWTO regional director for Africa, Ousmane Ndiaye said Zimbabwe should liberalise its airspace and implement a visa-friendly system for the country and the rest of the continent to grow their share of the tourism market from the present paltry 4% to double digits by 2020.