THE tourism sector in Africa has seen the number of international tourist arrivals rising by 8% to reach 58 million.
However, these arrivals to Africa represent only 5% of the one billion global tourists. While in Zimbabwe the sector contributes plus or minus 10% to the Gross Domestic Product, Zimbabwe Independent deputy editor Faith Zaba (FZ), who is in Durban for the Tourism Indaba, caught up with Zimbabwe Deputy minister Anastancia Ndhlovu (AN) and spoke about the growth of the sector in Zimbabwe. Below are excerpts of the interview.
FZ: How has the new Victoria Falls International Airport impacted on the tourism sector in Zimbabwe?
AN: I just want to thank the President (Robert Mugabe) for his visionary leadership because when that project started six years ago people did not really understand what was going on. They just thought it was just another loan to do another project. The US$150 million loan facility from the China Exim Bank went a long way in revitalising the tourism sector. The project has given a new face to Victoria Falls, which is really our prime tourism destination.
During the process it empowered the local people in terms of indigenous businesspeople who took part in the project.
It also empowered the locals who provided the labour. I would like to applaud his Excellency for being able to see into the future. As you may be aware in 2009, the president separated the ministry of tourism and the ministry of environment having realised the important role that tourism can play in the economic revival agenda of our country. This has seen the country really benefitting more and more from the benefits of tourism which as you many know is a low hanging foot. You have seen during the most difficult time of our economy, the sector has been able to sustain the economy in the last few years. It was better ahead of mining, agriculture and manufacturing in terms of projector growth.
FZ: And the upgrading of the airport, how has it benefitted the country?
AN: The airport has enabled bigger aircraft to land in Victoria Falls at any time of the day. You will remember that the old airport could not allow planes to land or take off after 6pm and it could only take smaller aircraft. So that on its own is a major booster for the sector. After its commissioning last year, we have seen the ministry of transport being able to clinch a number of deals with Ethiopian Airlines, which now has a direct flight from Addis Ababa to Victoria Falls, Kenya Airways has just launched theirs just about two weeks ago, Rwanda Airways will be doing the same and many others. So this is a major boost to the sector. We are looking forward to getting more flights coming directly. South African Airways (SAA) has increased the size of its aircraft, British Airways continues to service the route. So it has gone a long way in growing sector.
FZ: I have also heard that SAA will be introducing a direct flight from Durban to Victoria Falls?
AN: They are also working on another one from Cape Town to Victoria Falls. The airport will help us in achieving our ambition of making Zimbabwe the regional connection hub. It will also help us in restoring the glory of the previous years. It also brings a lot of opportunities for infrastructural development. The increase in arrivals will mean that tourism players will have to up their game in terms of the services we offer. There will be a need for more investment in terms of infrastructure as we move towards making Zimbabwe a Tourism hub. As you are aware, there is a 271-hectare piece of land under the Special Economic Zone and it is our wish as government to build big state-of-the-art conference facilities, five-star and above hotels in order for us to exploit the potential of tourism in the country. We cannot continue to host big conferences in temporary structures.
FZ: In the past planes would land and fly out and visitors would not spend time in Victoria Falls. What impact has the airport had on room occupancy?
AN: The room occupancy has increased and it continues to do so. We actually need to construct more to increase our room occupancy in Victoria Falls to get the return of investment. With more and more flights it can only get better.
FZ: What is the sector contributing to GDP?
AN: Currently it is contributing plus or minus 10% to the GDP. The ministry of finance had envisaged that by 2015/2016 it would contribute 15%. Our hope as government through my ministry of Tourism is to achieve what we call 5-5-2020. We have very ambitious targets of receiving five million tourists to come up with a US$5 billion economy by 2020. This can be done if all the enablers are put in place and already we are on the right track to achieve that.
Aviation is the lifeblood of tourism so the Victoria Falls International Airport has put us on track as far as achieving that goal. You may be aware that government has come up with a new visa regime which has moved certain countries from a certain category and that has helped a lot in terms of tourist arrivals. We have the Uni-Visa with Zambia, it is now a permanent feature. We need to move now towards the rest of the Sadc region in terms of using the Uni-Visa. This is how the Uni-Visa works, if you enter through Zambia, you can also access Zimbabwe using the same visa. So far it is working well with us. It is our hope that we will be able to extend this to the rest of all the Retosa (Regional Tourism Organisation of Southern Africa).
FZ: You spoke about putting in place the key enablers, what are those?
AN: I have spoken about some of them where something is already being done, opening up of our skies, opening up of our borders without necessarily compromising on national security, the infrastructure development is already on course. Tomorrow (May 18) his Excellency will launch the ground-breaking of the Chirundu highway, which is a key highway in Sadc in terms of economic growth and tourism travel. South Africa is a major contributor towards our tourism sector. The Tokwe-Mukorsi Dam will be commissioned on Friday this week, it also adds on the tourism menu offer. A number of ZimAsset programmes are on course in terms of enabling the growth of tourism.
FZ: While it is all good to attract international and regional tourists, what about domestic tourism?
AN: I call upon our people to really participate in the domestic tourism. We don’t have a holiday culture and people think tourism is for tourists from outside the country or it is preserve of the elite. To deal with that our ministry has come up with a tourism master plan, which will be launched very soon. It is the nucleus around which our tourism policy will be implemented. We have designated the country into 11 tourism development zones. You will be aware every part of our country, every district and province has its own unique features. It means we have managed to achieve product development, diversification.
FZ: One of the criticisms has been the pricing system of tourism products, what are you doing as a ministry to ensure that they are affordable to locals so as to increase domestic tourism?
AN: We work very closely with players in the industry through the ZTA (Zimbabwe Tourism Authority) and the Zimbabwe Council for Tourism. We are undertaking an ease of doing business programme which focuses on tourism which started late last year. Part of what it seeks to achieve, over and above making it easy for tourism players to operate, issues around pricing structure of tourism is one of the key issues that we look at. We are relatively an expensive destination not out choice. As you are aware, we using the multi-currency regime so as the dollar continues to firm against the smaller currencies such as the rand, the pula and the kwacha, we become a little more expensive.
Nonetheless there are a number of initiatives that are aimed at increasing domestic tourism. We work very closely with the ministry of environment. National parks has in excess of a 1 000 rooms which our people can really take advantage of and enjoy the beauty of our country. There are many facilities such as camping facilities. Tourism is about adventure and activities. An adventure does not necessarily mean you have to sleep in a hotel. You can go for the experience of the tourism products close to where you live. We urge all our people to really visit the tourism places close to their areas of stay. The new educational curriculum will go a long way in promoting domestic tourism.
AN: The curriculum from a very early age will teach about national heritage of our country and how important tourism is. As our young people grow up, it captures them while there are still young. They will have a holiday culture unlike the current generation. That is how government plans to demystify tourism as a preserve of the rich or the elite.
FZ: How does the pricing system compare regionally?
AN: We are not one of the most expensive. We compete well but the fact that we use the multi-currency, someone using the rand might find it a little on the high. However we are not doing badly.
FZ: One of the criticism has been the 15% on accommodation levied on foreign tourists. Are you talking to the ministry of finance on this issue?
AN: We work very close with the ministry of finance, those are some of the issues that are being looked at as we look at the ease of doing business.
FZ: Are you working with other countries in the region to market the region as a destination?
AN: We are a member of Retosa. Through Retosa we market the region as a bloc. We market the region as one destination. A tourist can start off in Cape Town or Durban and they can go to see the Table Mountain in Cape Town, come to see the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and see the Victoria Falls from the Zambian side before proceeding to enjoying the sand dunes in Namibia. After Namibia we can even encourage them to go and see the pyramids in Egypt before they leave the continent. That is how we are working as we try to achieve brand Africa. Retosa has actually helped us grow our tourism in Zimbabwe at a time when we were facing resistance due to the bad publicity and bad perception we suffered as a country.
FZ: You spoke about bad publicity, is it still how Zimbabwe is perceived?
AN: The job that we do is making sure that we talk about brand Zimbabwe. This is a misconception. That is what we do and ZTA on a daily basis and all the other players in the sector. If they don’t speak well about Zimbabwe, they don’t make money. Tourism is one sector that defies politics. You will be very shocked that our number one source market is that US, when everyone thinks that no American wants to visit Zimbabwe because of the politics. Western Europe is another big market for us but when it comes to politics, they talk ill of Zimbabwe when their citizens cannot wait to visit Zimbabwe. Tourism is a peace builder and it can be used to resolve conflicts where they exist. People to people diplomacy is the way to go if we are to achieve a unified and peaceful world.
FZ: I am going to the issue of potholes which has had a negative impact on tourism?
AN: A lot of work was done by Zinara to cover potholes in the city of Harare. A lot of work is being done to address that. All these things will soon be a thing of the past.
FZ: President Jacob Zuma spoke about the fastest train connecting all cities in Africa. How is that possible when our rail system has collapsed?
AN: There is a lot of progress in terms of revitalising and reviving the NRZ (National Railways of Zimbabwe) and it will go a very long way in promoting domestic tourism. Our railway connects the whole country. As being a member of the African Union, we will benefit from what President Zuma said.
FZ: How are roadblock affecting tourism?
AN: We work very closely with the ministry of home affairs, not only in making our destinations more accessible. They are responsible for the visa system but also in terms of smooth movement in the country. A few months ago, Minister Chombo shared that government is going to launch the e-roadblock system. We strongly believe that it will go a long way in making it smoother for our tourists to move. I am aware that there is a system in which if a traveller or motorist is given a ticket at one roadblock, he will not be given another as he moves around. That is progress. But more still needs to be done. We cannot not have these blocks.
FZ: Why have the cash shortages and bond notes affected the industry?
AN: As you know tourists don’t like to carrying cash. Some of the people who appreciate plastic money are tourists. They will only use bond notes while in Zimbabwe
FZ: We are going to have Sanganai in September. Is it going to be bigger this year?
AN: We are having Sanganai in September in Bulawayo and it is the biggest on the continent. We hope that this year it is going to be even bigger than last year. We want to achieve tourism growth with equity in our country.