HARARE // Zimbabwe's hopes of earning much-needed revenue by hosting football teams before the Fifa World Cup in June in neighbouring South Africa have been dashed: none of the 32 qualifiers chose to hold training camps here. The government had made attracting a high-profile team to train here a priority in its rebranding and economic reconstruction efforts after 10 years of isolation and economic distress.
So serious was the government that it despatched a ministerial delegation to Brazil in May to try to persuade football authorities there to allow the national team to stop here before the June 11-July 11 games. England, Portugal, Nigeria and Ghana were targeted, too. Joice Mujuru, the vice president and patron of the local tourism sector, and Arthur Mutambara, the deputy prime minister steering the rebranding strategy, led a high-powered delegation that witnessed the World Cup draw in Cape Town, South Africa, in December. Their effort included courting participating teams.
Hoteliers and restaurateurs spent large sums of money refurbishing their outlets to world-class standards. Home owners in the biggest cities, Harare and Bulawayo, and the resort town of Victoria Falls stampeded to register their houses as the government estimated that established hotels and lodges would be short of space for the anticipated influx of international sport tourists. All the investment could virtually go to waste, Emmanuel Fundira, president of the Zimbabwe Council for Tourism, said.
"We now know all the 32 teams will set up bases in the host country, South Africa. So while we remain hopeful that some teams might camp here, chances look increasingly limited. That is the small chance we are waiting for, but it isn't promising. As you might appreciate, fans tend to follow their national teams and if we do not host any teams it is unlikely we will get any visitors." Zimbabwe expected its embattled tourism sector to benefit from international football fans who will descend on South Africa for the world's biggest single-sport extravaganza. Tourism was once one of Zimbabwe's biggest industries, revolving around its abundant wildlife and the luxury and adventure town Victoria Falls.
In 1999 about 1.4 million tourists visited the country and generated US$400 million (Dh1.5 billion) for the country. Arrivals dropped sharply thereafter as tourists feared for their security and widespread shortages of fuel, food and electricity. Germany, Japan, the United States, Britain and Australia issued warnings against travelling in Zimbabwe, though the first two countries have lifted theirs. In 2008, 223, 000 tourists visited the country, spending $29.1m.
John Makumbe, a political-science professor at the University of Zimbabwe, said Zimbabwe's image as unsafe and unstable still lingers abroad, although the perception is slowly changing. "We are not there yet. People are still edgy. So perhaps we did not have a chance from the start," Mr Makumbe said. Enoch Muchinjo, a journalist, wrote in the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper recently: "This [failure to attract any teams] was a big blow for Zimbabwe as football authorities and politicians in this country have in the past months waxed lyrical about their concerted efforts to lure participating teams to camp in the country ahead of the world's biggest single-sport showpiece. Early indications are that the campaign could come to naught after all.
"The glaring flaw in the campaign is that it was largely on political levels. One country in particular is said to have made a commitment to come to Zimbabwe through its ambassador. Most international football sides are not subjected to government interference." Zimbabwe had officially registered 30,000 rooms to accommodate World Cup visitors, hoping to earn $200m. But the Zimbabwe Council for Tourism said the take-up was poor. Of Victoria Falls's 2,800 rooms, only 500 rooms had been booked for the World Cup by last week.
Shingi Munyeza, chief executive of Africa Sun, whose hotel group is the official Fifa accommodation provider in Zimbabwe, said from the start it was clear South Africa would get most of the benefits. "This is South Africa's event essentially. If we get anything, which I am confident we would, especially around Victoria Falls that would be fine. There are also some benefits in terms of publicity the tournament is bringing to the region."
Despite the apparent snub, Walter Mzembi, the tourism minister, expects at least two teams to camp here. He said international tourists will find that for a 90-minute flight from Johannesburg, the Victoria Falls, the world's largest waterfall, is irresistible. "I maintain Victoria Falls is a must-see for any tourist, more so if he or she comes to southern Africa. So all is not lost yet," he said.