HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe has recently been flooded with glowing reports in the state media of a dramatic recovery in tourism. But those bulletins may be premature.
Tourist numbers have risen from 100,000 last year to 362,000 this year, according to industry reports, and many hotels have reported an increase in occupancy rates. But the hotel numbers do not take account of whole floors of leading hotels being blocked off.
Hotel swimming pools, once surrounded by flight crews seeking a tan in Zimbabwe’s perennial sunshine, are deserted. And while the number of visitors has undoubtedly increased, many are Chinese tourists who do not spend money or visitors from other African states who stay with relatives.
There has been a concerted campaign to bring in travelers from China where Air Zimbabwe now operates routes. But Chinese tourists move around in supervised gangs — called duck tours — and keep their hands in their pockets when visiting curio stalls.
“It’s a disaster,” said travel writer Dusty Miller of Zimbabwe’s “Look East” policy. “They are not big spenders and cannot substitute for tourists from our traditional markets in Europe and North America.”
In particular Miller laments the loss of the “golden triangle” — the London/Mauritius/ Australia route which delivered thousands of visitors including carefree backpackers into the Zimbabwean market.
Zimbabwe’s world-class facilities and attractions, particularly its game parks and Victoria Falls, saw a dramatic growth of the tourism industry in the 1980s and 90s when new players entered the scene. By 1999 Zimbabwe was expecting to attract 1 million tourists. But once Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis hit, and the country was viewed as volatile, tourist numbers plummeted.
President Robert Mugabe's penchant for making angry anti-Western rhetoric is a major obstacle to a recovery in tourism. While Western countries have lifted their travel warnings on Zimbabwe, the impression of a nation ruled by a hostile dictator has not changed. An Economic Empowerment Act which requires investors to surrender a 51 percent holding to locals in any project is another deterrent.
The power-sharing government between Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is a distinctly uneasy alliance. While the Tsvangirai side is working to put Zimbabwe on a better footing, for tourism and everything else, the Mugabe half of the government carries on as it has for nearly 30 years. These mixed signals do not reassure potential tourists.
Tourism may be finding its feet after 10 years of recession and turmoil but it is not all plain sailing. The sector is governed by a state body, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA), which draws its funding from levies on the private-sector. The ZTA puts out a stream of sunshine stories about the need to “change perceptions” of Zimbabwe which ignore developments on the ground such as the continuing violent farm seizures.
There is, however, one notable success story to emerge from the tourism sector. It comes from the African Sun group which is headed by the flamboyant Shingi Munyeza, a self-made businessman.
His group has expanded into West Africa and oil-rich Equatorial Guinea where its hotel rooms are much in demand. He believes it is necessary to take risks or be left behind.
"The opportunities for business in Zimbabwe are immense," Munyeza told the AP recently. "The question is: Do you get in now or later? Later is very costly. Early is very risky."
But as every operator in the private sector will testify, Zimbabwe’s future success lies in political stability. Mugabe is currently obstructing economic recovery by reckless policy measures — such as threatening to reintroduce the discredited Zimbabwe dollar before Christmas — while the world watches in trepidation. The U.S. dollar has over the past year reduced Zimbabwe's million percent inflation to manageable levels and has provided a steady anchor to a troubled economy.
British ambassador Mark Canning noted last week that while there had been some improvement on the economic front, investors were still concerned with the ongoing farm seizures, lack of security of tenure, and a sound legal framework to protect investments.
Britain is Zimbabwe’s biggest investor.
“Once the provisions of the global political agreement (between Zanu-PF and the MDC) are fulfilled,” Canning said, “I am certain significant investment will be made in Zimbabwe and British companies are ready to move in, in a big way. But for now everything is being watched closely.”
A further problem on the country’s path to recovery of its tourism is the decimation of its wildlife. In particular the numbers of rare rhinoceros have dropped precipitously. Rhinos were moved to the southern parts of the country 10 years ago to remove them from the reach of Zambian poachers. They have now come under siege, not from hungry poachers, but from new land occupiers and army officers in the southern conservancies.
More problems come from the hemorrhaging state companies like Air Zimbabwe and National Railways which Mugabe won’t let go of for what he claims are “strategic” reasons. He means sheltered employment for his followers. But those key companies operate very inefficiently and run up huge state debts.
Zimbabwe's most marketable products — its reliably sunny weather and its friendly, well-educated people — may compensate for some of these shortcomings and encourage first-time visitors, but more political and economic stability are needed to get the country's tourism back to healthy levels.