IT was not only the manufacturing sector that bled when the aggressive covid-19 pandemic spread.As projected when the outbreak rolled through advanced economies in the first two months of the year, forcing terrified people to retreat to their homes, airlines were grounded, tourism destinations closed and everyone cut short their travel plans.
It was the beginning of a near-disaster for tourism-reliant countries such as Zimbabwe, which earns about US$2 billion yearly from the sector.
The country has had its fair share of blunders that have affected arrivals since gaining independence in 1980, including violent land seizures from 2000.
But tourism’s fragility was amplified by developments in 2020, which clearly demonstrated that factors other than politics can also scare away tourists.
A clear picture of the pandemic’s impact came through late October, when the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) said the country suffered its worst drabbing in many decades, with up to 90% of arrivals lost.
“Zimbabwe’s tourism sector, as with many industries, is slowly staggering to a new-normal after a tumultuous few months of uncertainty,” said Godfrey Koti, head of corporate affairs at the ZTA, while writing in the organisation’s newsletter.
“The tourism sector is a major foreign currency earner, generating just over US$1,3 billion from 2,5 million tourist arrivals recorded in 2018. The freezing of international and domestic travel has significantly impacted tourism, destabilising a forecasted 30% growth in domestic tourism by end of 2020. During the period under review, international tourist arrivals in Zimbabwe declined between 30% and 90%, making a loss of close to US$1 billion in tourism receipts. However, the recovery of the key foreign currency earner has been gaining momentum with various tourism players throughout the country re-opening facilities in strict compliance with the COVID-19 health protocols.
On the other hand, government recently exempted Value Add Tax on all tourism services for domestic tourists in a bid to reduce the prices being charged on tourism products and services. Government has also opened up areas for tourism development to allow for product innovation and diversification in the form of cultural tourism, recreational areas and resort developments,” Koti noted.
The sector had projected to scale up arrivals by 30%, riding on improved access after major airport revamps and aggressive forays into the world’s richest source markets.
In October, government allowed the industry to return on a measured approach, with operators being asked to adhere to strict Covid-19 guidelines to save tourists.
It is difficult to predict if the industry may recover at the pace expected by authorities.
But after managing to keep the virus at bay through strict lockdown measures that were announced in March, it has spiralled out of control in the past two months.
The reasons behind the upsurge are simple.
Government has been careful not to further inflict economic damage by keeping industries shut, while restricting travel.
Yet this has had its own drawbacks.
Contact between citizens had improved and the rate at which affected people transfer Covid-19 to others has increased.
By Tuesday this week, about 320 people had passed on in 12 400 cases reported in Zimbabwe since March.
The good news is that experts are convinced that with proper planning, the industry can generate US$5 billion per annum.
“The need to tap into the diaspora market will be critical,” says Finance minister Mthuli Ncube.
“Post Covid-19, the diaspora tourism promotion will be targeted at markets such as SA, the USA, Australia and the UK,” he says.
His plan is to twin this aggressive diaspora engagement with a robust domestic tourism campaign called ZimBho, which is already underway.
These will then be complemented by a cluster of ongoing initiatives to rebuild tourism. Under a strategy that came into force in 2019, Zimbabwe has been combing through large swaths of previously unexplored wildlife-rich jungles to unlock fresh investment opportunities and attractions.
The country’s remote outback locations still have undiscovered treasures that could boost the geographical spread of attractions and drive revenues for the industry.
Zimbabwe wants to review the present spread of tourism investment and infrastructure, then add new ground in high potential destinations away from the traditional resort centres.