THERE was a modicum of pomp and fanfare during the Harare International Carnival as people lined the streets of Harare’s City Centre to watch the parade which featured local dancers and bands, Brazilian samba dancers and groups from Trinidad and Tobago, Malawi, Kenya, Egypt, Namibia, Ethiopia and South Africa, among other countries.
The 10-day carnival organised by the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA), which ran under the theme “Celebrating Our Diversity”, ended at the weekend with a parade in the city centre.
The Saturday event started with a march led by the newly-crowned Miss Carnival 2014, Gamuchirai Kujeke, and several local and visiting bands, culminating in a big bash at Africa Unity Square where the audience enjoyed non-stop music before hundreds of dancehall enthusiasts thronged Harare Gardens for “Dancehall Night”.
Zimbabwe is borrowing the carnival concept from countries like Brazil, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago where carnivals are big business events, attracting hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors and locals.
Zimbabweans, however, had a chance to see the famous Brazilian samba dancers at the festival, whom many felt did not live up to their expectations.
Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe president Tamuka Macheka was quoted in the state media as saying the carnival would benefit the tourism and hospitality industry.
He pointed out the event would bring “us the perception shift that we are looking for and it will be good for the whole economy when people see that Zimbabwe is an attractive and safe destination that they can visit and invest in”.
But just how exactly did Zimbabwe’s tourism industry benefit from the Harare International Carnival?
Questions have been raised as to whether the carnival is the best strategy to improve Zimbabwe’s battered image and thereby help attract international tourists and earn the country much-needed revenue.
According to Tourism and Hospitality minister Walter Mzembi, the tourism industry should contribute US$5 billion to the country’s gross domestic product by 2018.
In other countries like Brazil, carnivals have been effective in promoting local culture while attracting hundreds of thousands of international visitors.
Millions of visitors, both local and international, head for the carnivals in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro every year, not just to party, but also to experience true Afro-Brazilian culture.
In 2011, Rio de Janeiro’s carnival alone drew 4,9 million people, 400 000 being foreigners.
The total number of foreign visitors has since risen to more than 500 000 a year.
To show that the carnival is big business in Brazil, hotel and other packages are already being advertised for the 2015 carnivals in Rio de Janeiro. The Rio Carnival is a wild five-day celebration, held 40 days before Easter.
In neighbouring South Africa, although not quite as grand as the Rio Carnival, the Cape Town festival, held in March every year, has received tributes like “awesome”, “unforgettable” and “worth visiting”. In 2014 it attracted more than 70 000 visitors.
But for Zimbabwe, sceptics argue the Harare International Carnival is one of the many international events into which government pours in millions of dollars without any tangible benefits to the economy.
Analysts spoken to this week believe the carnival, poorly marketed and organised because the country is on a learning curve, is just a waste of taxpayers’ money with no return on investment, at a time Treasury is cash-strapped.
An analyst in the tourism sector, who preferred anonymity said: “As long as Zimbabwe is regarded as some pariah state that is presided over by an authoritarian regime, it will not attract any meaningful visitors.”
Although Zimbabwe was named the “world best tourism destination and favourite cultural destination for 2014” by the European Council on Tourism and Trade, the number of foreign visitors has ironically been declining since 1999.
According to ZTA statistics from 1999 to 2013, European visitors declined by 66% from 380 113 to 128 901, while those from the Americas declined by 53% from 116 109 to 54 157 and tourists from Oceania also contracted by 65% from 65 281 to 22 689.
Recently, the country recorded a 2% growth in tourist arrivals from 1 794 230 in 2012 to 1 832 570 in 2013. The majority of 2013 arrivals were said to be low-spending tourists from mainland Africa numbering 1 570 799.
However, despite the increase, the arrivals are yet to reach a peak of 2,2 million tourists of 1999. This is despite ZTA venturing into many programmes, including the Celebrity Host Programme, which saw various international celebrities coming to the country to help boost the country’s image.
ZTA, in collaboration with the late Tendai Mupfurusta aka Prince Tendai, brought in global-profile artists that included Akon, Ciara and Joe Thomas, who was appointed Zimbabwe’s music ambassador in 2008.
It is now more than five years since Ambassador Thomas visited the country; little or nothing has been heard of his ambassadorial work.
Political commentator Blessing Vava said to imagine that the Harare International Carnival was going to market Harare is a sign government had run out of ideas.
Vava said: “They do not understand exactly what they are trying to achieve, any processes that are meant to market or benefit our tourism should be sustainable, coordinated, something lacking in this just-ended carnival.
“Surely, you cannot claim to be marketing our country by having shows in bars, street parties, and the parading of semi-naked women on the streets of Harare. Is the carnival meant to market Harare or Zimbabwe? These are questions we ask and we want to know who the event was targeting.”
Economic analyst Eric Bloch said Zimbabwe needed an aggressive strategy to market its extraordinary tourist attractions which include the magnificent Victoria Falls, the breath-taking views of the Vumba, Chimanimani and Nyanga mountains, the spectacular Mana pools, the historical Great Zimbabwe, Khami Ruins and Chibvumani Ruins to mention just a few.
In his weekly column in the Zimbabwe Independent in November last year, Bloch said: “To achieve a far greater extent of the already increasing tourist patronage, there is much that Zimbabwe must do in both the public and private sectors …
“In pursuit thereof, Zimbabwe needs to vigorously strive for improved international relations in general, and with the US, United Kingdom, European Union and Australia, in particular.”
Bloch said Zimbabwe should ensure the reliability of domestic and international flights, so that upon arrival in Zimbabwe, they are not confronted by major delays or cancellations in air, rail or other transportation means to their tourism destinations.
“Very importantly, government must intensify its efforts to contain corruption at border posts, primarily demands for bribes. Visitors also need to be assured they are not endlessly confronted and pestered by touts,” he said.
“Zimbabwe needs significant upgrading of its Internet and telephonic networks to the region and internationally, for tourists need to have reliable and urgent access to their families abroad. They must be assured and uninterrupted availability of essential utilities and allied services.”
A member of the parliamentary portfolio committee on tourism and hospitality, MDC-T MP Moses Manyengavana, said people did not understand the carnival and bemoaned the poor marketing.
“There a lot of serious issues that government needs to work on to attract international tourists in this country and carnivals will not attract much attention,” he said.
Mzembi described the carnival as a success, but could not give details.
“Of course, it was a success; however, I cannot get into detail of how many tourists came. We had a team by the way that is working on compiling all that information. I will only get the detailed report in the afternoon (Wednesday),” he said.
There is little doubt the details will reveal that the country has a long way to go before the carnival delivers the intended impact and economic benefits.