ZIMBABWE is ranked a lowly 114 out of 136 countries, according to the 2017 Global Tourism Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum. Zimbabwe Independent business reporter Tinashe Kairiza (TK) spoke to the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe vice-president Clive Chinwada (CC) about the state of tourism and challenges inhibiting growth of the sector in Zimbabwe, among other issues. Below are the interview excerpts:
TK: Zimbabwe has reportedly entered a “new dispensation”. Has the so-called new era fostered a sense of confidence within the tourism sector?
CC: There certainly has been a change in sentiment and indeed, confidence in the sector has improved significantly. You will be able to measure this by looking at the number of operations that had closed that are re-opening, as well as the hotels and lodges that are renewing their products or are planning to renew or even expand. In view of this optimism and as business, we can therefore only impress upon the need by government to satisfy the promise and commitment made by President Emmerson Mnangagwa of a free, fair and credible election. We believe that the building blocks for a positive post-elections era are in place if this commitment is satisfied.
TK: Following the change of government last year, has this translated into an increase in tourist arrivals and hotel occupancy?
CC: We can, as an industry, state with some degree of confidence that occupancies and tourist arrivals, especially in Victoria Falls and the main cities like Harare and Bulawayo, have been on a growth path. We, however, have also to state that planning horizons for international tourists are usually one year or more ahead so the full benefits of the new dispensation and any reforms are yet to be felt. We reckon that if the political environment remains positive, 2019 could turn out to be an even better year for the tourism and hospitality industry. By then, Zimbabwe will be featuring more prominently as a destination on the packages offered by international buyers.
TK: There are reports that tourists were annoyed by the numerous police roadblocks during the time of former president Robert Mugabe. Has this sentiment changed among travellers?
CC: The current state of affairs is a cause for delight to the industry and this has to be maintained even after elections. The fact that roadblocks were a big cause for irritation to travellers and caused collateral damage to brand Zimbabwe, on which the tourism industry rides on, cannot be overemphasised. The self-drive tourist has benefitted immensely as roadblocks were synonymous with harassment of travellers. Our roads are now more hospitable and the roadblock surcharge in the form of fines and bribes has been eliminated. The authorities have to be applauded for this move.
TK: The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) introduced a US$15 million support facility for tourism players, but uptake of the same has been low. Why are industry players not utilising this facility?
CC: There is hunger to take up the facility by the industry, especially within the individually-owned hotels and lodges. However, there have been logistical challenges and a dearth of information on how this facility can be easily accessed. To be honest, there is a feeling within our membership that the RBZ is not being sincere on whether, indeed, funds are available for disbursement.
TK: Let us talk about Manicaland, do you think the area can grab a significant portion of the market share vis-a-vis other competing tourist-designated areas such as Matabeleland North which boasts of the Victoria Falls?
CC: The Eastern Highlands remains a critical cog on the national tourist map. In fact, prior to 2000, Chimanimani National Park ranked the second after Hwange in terms of popularity with international tourists. Above this, there is so much diversity in terms of what can be done in the destination from the adrenalin-pumping activities such as the sky walk in Mtarazi to the tranquil and serene activities for nature lovers such as bird watching and fly fishing. There is need to provide enablers for travel into the destination, especially through fixing accessibility to the destination and our attractions. This can only be possible if air access is provided to cater for long-haul travellers, while the road network itself has to be better
TK: What has been the impact of Statutory Instrument 64 on hotel operations, considering the complaints from some players in your industry that the law made it expensive to import vital supplies?
CC: While the reasons that led to the promulgation of the statutory instrument are understandable, you will be aware of the fact that people use and regard hotels as a luxury product. To this end, the quality and variety of the products tourists and our visitors expect us to provide sometimes imply that SI64 is a constraint to the hotelier’s quest to meet the expectations of the guest in both quality and variety. I always give an example of the bad years around 2007 when there was no meat in our butcheries. Customers still expected hotels to provide commodities that had long dried up on the market then, simply because a hotel promises comfort, a good experience and to some extent, some degree of luxury. A case in point is the issue of linen products which have to be of a specific quality to meet hotel standards, yet the product is protected under SI64. We certainly feel, as an industry, that we are a critical sector that contributes in a big way to foreign currency generation and as such the application of the SI could have been evaluated vis-a-vis the needs of the tourism and hospitality industry.
TK: How competitive is the Zimbabwean tourism product within the region, is our pricing model steep or affordable?
CC: Zimbabwe was in 2017 ranked number 114 out of 136 countries by the World Economic Forum on the Global Tourism Competitiveness Report. This points to the fact that our industry falls short of the desired levels in-so-far as competitiveness is concerned. The leading African countries are Mauritius, South Africa, Morocco. Factors that resulted in this poor ranking relate to below par performance on some of the key pillars that are used to evaluate the tourism competitiveness of destinations such as tourism infrastructure (where) we are ranked number 106, airport infrastructure, where we are on number 116 and on the business environment index we are number 134, among many other factors.
However, when you look at the hotel price index, Zimbabwe is ranked number 15, while the price competitiveness index of the entire tourism value chain is at number 53.
Empirically, therefore, we can say with some degree of comfort that while we are not the most affordable destination in the region, we compare reasonably well to the rest of our peers. I know that this will court some controversy, but in all the research we have done as an industry, including the WEF Report, which comes from an independent body, suggests that pricing is not the main issue. Government has to assist the sector in other areas such as infrastructure development, ease of accessing visa and related regulations, and ease of doing business to enable the sector to retool and be able to compete also on the basis of the quality of infrastructure and services available for the tourist.
TK: The Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) recently clamped down on unregistered players in the tourism sector, do you think this is the best way of regularising operations of such entities?
CC: Certainly industry regulation helps bring integrity to the sector in that the minimum requirements including service, security and safety of travellers is safeguarded by players. In addition, it also helps to ensure that registered operators do not face unfair competition from unlicensed operators who do not incur the costs of licensing that registered operators have to contend with. We therefore encourage ZTA to continue with this exercise so as to level the playing field, while at the same time helping in enforcing the maintenance of standards and quality in this sector, as this is the springboard upon which a successful tourism brand is built.
TK: What has been the impact of foreign currency shortages on the tourism industry in Zimbabwe?
CC: General increases in the cost of inputs from suppliers which has eroded profitability as suppliers of goods and services to the industry are factoring in the cost of accessing forex on the parallel market to their pricing. The sector has also experienced delays in settlements of payments for imported goods and services which creates a bottleneck to quality service delivery. The industry feels this is unwarranted given the export status of the sector.
TK: In the short term, do you project an increase in tourist arrivals in Zimbabwe and a change in how the country is perceived?
CC: Based on the wave of optimism in the major source markets and a resuscitation of interest by Western markets, we certainly believe the industry is poised for growth. One critical factor to be considered is that the tourism and hospitality industry is perception based and to the extent that the source markets believe in brand Zimbabwe, there is scope for growth. We therefore have to be cautious as a nation in protecting and safeguarding the current gains of a post-November 2017 Zimbabwe. We should by all means avoid making any political mistakes as in the past given the fragility of tourism and its susceptibility to negative publicity and a poor image.