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Economic decay retards tourism

That former deputy prime minister Arthur Mutambara barely made a mark on many Zimbabweans’ lives in his political career, is not debatable.

Taurai Mangudhla

But one thing he will perhaps be easily remembered for is his attempt to relate James Carville’s statement during former United States president Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign “It’s the economy, stupid” to the Zimbabwean scenario.

Mutambara made various attempts to show that the troubled southern African country’s problems were political through his “it’s the politics, stupid” comment.

He made attempts to show how the economy depends on the political environment during his presentations, particularly towards the end of his tenure in the inclusive government of between 2008 and 2013.

Mutambara’s statements hold true to a larger extent as apparently shown by the performance of the country’s tourism industry and its ability to attract fresh lines of credit.
Zimbabwe, once a favourite destination for foreign capital in Southern Africa with investments in agriculture, mining and tourism as well as the service industry, suffered a huge blow in around 2000 when government embarked on a fast-track land reform programme which displaced thousands of commercial white framers.

The chaotic programmes, which saw some white farmers being tortured and even killed, saw thousands of white farmers losing their land and investments.

To the rest of the world, this signaled a lack of respect for property rights and human rights, spelling doom for the Zimbabwean economy. Simply put, this meant capital was not safe and the lives of the “white” man were not safe either. Apart from Zimbabwe’s bad boy image that has seen it perennially ranking among the worst countries in the world in terms of the ease of doing business, the country’s tourism pricing regime is uncompetitive.

Zimbabwe’s product is priced in US dollars, making it more expensive than other products which are priced in weaker currencies like the rand and pula. Tourists who also come from jurisdictions with weaker currencies find Zimbabwe expensive.

Zimbabwe punitive tax regime, coupled with de-industrialisation that has forced the economy to rely on imports and devaluation of regional currencies against the US dollar, have rendered the country an expensive and uncompetitive tourist destination.

Despite various attempts by the country’s leading hospitality groups to lure clients through discounts that even topped 69% in the first half of 2016, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) reported national hotel room occupancy slid by two percentage points in the first quarter of 2016 to 36%.

Statistics obtained from Zimbabwe’s aviation regulator, Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (Caaz) show the authority recorded 1,47 million international and domestic passengers through its eight airports in 2015.

The 1,47 million passengers handled in 2015 are a far cry from 1999 figures at 74,9%. In 1999, prior to the chaotic land reform, Zimbabwe handled 1,9 million passengers.
Caaz general manager David Chawota’s statement in the parastatal’s 2015 annual report confirms the importance of the political and economic environment to aviation and tourism in general.

“The aviation sector’s performance is largely dependent on the dynamics of general economic activities,” he said.

Despite the adverse economic environment, Chawota said the authority continued to provide safe and secure aviation services. The authority, he said, also continued to excel with regards to compliance to international standards and recommended procedures.

Chawota said Caaz’s business performance is measured by the volume of passengers and aircraft handled by its airports and air space system.

“The authority through its eight airports handled 1 470 070 international and domestic passengers. The total passenger movements represents 24,5% of the six million annual passenger handling capacity available in 2015,” Chawota said. “The passenger movements increased by 11% compared to 2014. The growth is attributed to the coming in of low cost airlines into the market, which attracted new travellers both in the domestic and international routes.”

He said domestic passenger movements contributed 19,5% of the total passengers.

The decline reflects major contraction in international and domestic tourism activities in Zimbabwe and economic decline that impacted negatively on the tourism and business travel.

The South African based airlines moved the highest number of both departing and arriving international passengers. Air Zimbabwe moved the bulk of domestic passengers. The increase in passenger movement is attributed to, among others, the coming in of fastjet in 2015 and the increase in frequencies by airlines like Ethiopian and South African airways.

Commercial cargo declined by 1% from 16,1 tonnes in 2014 to 16,024 tonnes in 2014 mainly due to decline in exports.

According to Caaz figures, there were 20 scheduled airlines, including cargo carriers operating into Zimbabwe, during the year under review. Economist John Robertson said Zimbabwe was yet to recover from the impact of the land reform.

“It was around 1999 that the land reform started and these figures simply show the impact of the chaotic programme. The land reform had a negative impact on conservancies, particularly the private-owned conservancies and safaris, hence the low turnout,” Robertson said. “People became uncertain of travelling to Zimbabwe and we haven’t recovered.

People who took land and conservancies have consumed wildlife and failed to run the establishments. They have failed to attract tourists. Currently, the environment is not helpful because you see 20 roadblocks on your way to Victoria Falls and a tourist will share their experience back at home, imagine what this does.”

Robertson said hotels were running at about at 40% occupancies as a result, spelling doom for the tourism industry.

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