BY FIDELITY MHLANGA
THE Tourism Business Council of Zimbabwe (TBCZ) this week pressed the panic baton, warning of damaging upheavals unless government shifted policy and relaxed tough conditions imposed on hotels.
The multibillion-dollar industry, which makes up about 4,1% of Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product and generates about US$3 billion annually, has been pushed to the brink by Covid-19 induced hard lockdowns since March 2020.
Sector firms’ predicament was last year compounded by the emergence of the Omicron variant, which forced government to apply tougher measures to fight the contagion, including shutting down public spaces in hotels – the locomotives that drive leisure and travel worldwide.
Government scaled up restrictions this month, when it directed restaurants attached to hotels, backpackers, lodges and guest houses to serve food and drinks only in rooms.
Acting President Constantino Chiwenga, who is the Minister of Health and Child Care, announced the directives under Public Health (Covid-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) Regulations of 2020 through a Statutory Instrument (SI).
The directives threw the sector into a quandary because it had already been unsettled by SI 267 of 2021, which enforced stricter conditions for inbound tourists, including ten-day quarantine on arrival before mixing with locals.
This week, TBCZ president Wengayi Nhau warned of more corporate graveyards in the sector as he revealed that the fewer international arrivals still trooping into the region were skirting Zimbabwe to luxuriate in competing destinations that have less stringent regulations.
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“This instruction is (the SI) unimaginable, unworkable and unthinkable,” Nhau told Standard Business.
The TBCZ brings together, several organisations that represent the industry’s interests.
These include the Association of Zimbabwe Travel Agents, the Board of Airline Representatives, the Zimbabwe Vehicle Rental Association, the Zimbabwe-Tour Operators Association, the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, the Catering Employers Association of Zimbabwe and the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe.
“Our industry is now in distress,” Nhau added.
“We are now faced with an industry that is on the verge of collapse if nothing is done now to assure the markets that we are doing something. The latest instruction was just an addition to what already was there which required mandatory ten days quarantine for visitors and another PCR test on arrival.
“Although they (government) have not been implementing this, the international community stand guided by the official position. The official position is that quarantine is required. This has led to a lot of tourists cancelling or deferring trips into Zimbabwe,” Nhau told Standardbusiness.
He said when government announced new rules in November, to manage the Omicron threat, the industry was confident that this would be followed by a quick review this January.
He said with infection and mortality rates falling, authorities must relax restrictions to save the industry and reactivate economies in a string of major resorts, which are now literally “ghost towns”.
“It is the first time that infection numbers are going down but they (government) are increasing restrictions, which has left us with many questions. We are now in a situation whereby if nothing is done, we are facing an industry that is going to close. People are in distress and workers are now anxious,” Nhau said.
“Victoria Falls is (now) a ghost town. (The resort town of) Kariba is just as good as buried. Conference business is under threat. We have a big conference coming up and nobody would want to have a situation where they are restricted to their rooms at the hotels. It defeats the whole purpose of being on holiday. People would rather not to come to Zimbabwe. Operators have lost bookings to neighbouring countries like Zambia and Botswana who have come out with more clarity in terms of protocol and regulations. Bookings and decisions on which destinations to go are made during the first quarter. We are already one month into the first quarter without clarity. We have casualties in terms of job losses and business closures. In the worst-case scenario, liquidations are going to happen soon,” he said.
The Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe said last year that the tourism industry required at least US$100 million in fresh grants to stay afloat.
SOAZ chairman, Emmanuel Fundira said under the circumstances, extending loans to the sector would worsen an already bad situation.
It was the latest of a series of pleas by sector players for any form of intervention to avert a catastrophe after hotel occupancy levels plummeted from a near 50% in 2019 to about 13% currently.