x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Zimbabwe tourism suffers fall from grace

If optimism is important to success, Zimbabwe's atrophied tourism industry might one day recover the vitality it enjoyed before violent land reform, political breakdown and economic collapse took their toll.

An Air Zimbabwe plane at Victoria Falls Airport, Zimbabwe.
An Air Zimbabwe plane at Victoria Falls Airport, Zimbabwe.

Givemore Chidzidzi has a huge challenge on his hands, but he remains surprisingly optimistic. "As the saying goes, it's not the falling that matters - it's how you get back up," he says. 

In this case, however, the fall is not one from which a recovery is easy. As the chief operating officer of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA), Mr Chidzidzi watched his country's tourism industry boom in the late 1990s and then collapse over the past decade amid devastating economic conditions and human rights abuses under the oppressive regime of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president.

Mr Chidzidzi explains that in an attempt to salvage the industry, the authority is turning to new tourism markets such as the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Gulf. "They are high-spending tourists to begin with," Mr Chidzidzi says. "Not only that, but we have what they are looking for - the climate, the wildlife, the people, and there is only one Victoria Falls." The numbers of tourists going to Zimbabwe from the Middle East are small, but there is huge potential for growth, he says. And there are already signs of that. In the first quarter of this year, Zimbabwe received 695 tourists from the region, compared with 548 in the same period last year. Mr Chidzidzi is quick to highlight that the early part of the year is not the high season for visitors from the Middle East.

He says that hunting, which is legal in Zimbabwe, is likely to be a popular attraction for visitors from the Middle East. Last year, Dubai World said it had invested in the Bubye game park in Zimbabwe, where hunting tours take place. The ZTA also hopes that the image of the country has not been tarnished as badly in the Middle East as it has been in western markets. "Perceptions are difficult to manage," Mr Chidzidzi says. "Obviously, for us these perceptions came about for reasons that we also know and appreciate. The decline in our tourism and, obviously, our whole economic demise was something that was triggered by our land-reform programme. It's a challenge for us."

Ten years ago, white-owned commercial farms were seized from their owners, often with violence, resulting in the displacement of workers. The agricultural industry subsequently deteriorated, unemployment soared to above 90 per cent, infrastructure suffered and the country had the world's highest inflation rate as money was printed to plug budget deficits. The low point for the country was 2008, amid the political violence of the election campaigns. A cholera epidemic also struck.

Some foreign authorities issued travel warnings and many operators stopped selling tours to the country. Now there are some signs of relative improvement, with a cross-party government in place, although locals say that in reality power still lies with Mr Mugabe. The country abandoned the Zimbabwean dollar last year in preference for foreign currencies, greatly reducing inflation, which had reached an annual rate of 231 million per cent in 2008.

The government believes revitalisation of the tourism sector could be key to the country's broader economic recovery. "Tourism in Zimbabwe is recognised as a very effective tool for development, and it's economic powers cannot be overestimated," Mr Chidzidzi says. "The government has declared tourism to be one of the strategic economic sectors for Zimbabwe. We are coming from a situation where our economy was declining, and right now we are on a recovery path, and we know that the accelerator for the recovery happens to be the tourism industry."

Initiatives by Zimbabwe include recruiting celebrities to try to change the country's image. The Senegalese-American singer Akon and the Grammy-winning Jamaican dancehall and reggae artist Sean Paul performed there last month. The sector also tried to capitalise on the FIFA World Cup in neighbouring South Africa this summer, although hoteliers say the event had little direct impact on Zimbabwe. Analysts believe there is hope for the industry.

"Zimbabwe's travel and tourism industry is believed to have seen its worst years," analysts at Euromonitor International wrote in a report on travel and tourism in Zimbabwe. "The appetite for Zimbabwe will be hungrier than ever if the agreement signed by the country's main political parties succeeds in bringing stability. However, the country still has to deal with a number of challenges, including spiralling inflation, negative real interest rates, a chronic shortage of foreign exchange, a shortage of cash and a high investment risk. The success of long-term growth in the travel and tourism industry will depend on the government's ability to sustain meaningful financial, economic, political, as well as social reforms."

One of the main factors holding back the tourism industry is that many airlines stopped flying to Zimbabwe amid its troubles. British Airways stopped its direct service three years ago, citing fuel costs and economic feasibility. It was one of many airlines. "The country has witnessed the withdrawal of a number of reputable airlines, citing viability problems," Euromonitor says. "Approximately 18 international airlines are reported to have left the country since the start of Zimbabwe's economic crisis."

The ZTA says that steps are being taken to improve the connectivity and that the country is keen to establish better links with the GCC. "We are seriously talking to airlines in the Middle East to service Harare directly," Mr Chidzidzi says. The tourism authority had been in contact with Emirates Airline, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, he says. Air Zimbabwe was also flying between Harare and Dubai but stopped the service last year. But now the carrier is considering reintroducing that service, Mr Chidzidzi says.

Before the troubles over land reform, tourists flocked to the Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe's main attraction. But the fortunes of the tourist town at the attraction declined dramatically. Hoteliers in the area say occupancy levels fell below 20 per cent amid the country's economic and political deterioration. Business is now gradually returning, they say. "We're on our way up, but I think there's still a lot of confidence that we need to regain," says Kevin Fry, the general manager at the Ilala Lodge Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel at Victoria Falls. "It's a long process. You're taking 10 years of a decline and you've got to try and turn that around. It'll take years to sort it out."

He says companies need to put more money into the country. "They are unsure themselves on the future, so they're not willing to put money in." Mr Chidzidzi is confident the tourism authority can succeed. "No problem is insurmountable. If some parts of the world can continue receiving tourists and Zimbabwe doesn't even have half the problems some of those destinations have, why should Zimbabwe as a destination continue to decline?"