x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Zimbabwe off target for World Cup

For the past four years, the buzzword in southern Africa has been "Fifa" as the region prepares to host the event.

Victoria Falls draws thousands of tourists to Zimbabwe every year.
Victoria Falls draws thousands of tourists to Zimbabwe every year.

BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE // For the past four years, the buzzword in southern Africa has been "Fifa World Cup" as the region prepares to host football's biggest event in South Africa in two years. In June 2010, Africa will for the first time host the global sporting extravaganza, a prospect that has triggered sustained interest not only in South Africa, but across the continent. While South Africa, the continent's economic powerhouse, expects to reap handsomely from the showpiece - an estimated US$6 billion (Dh22.02bn) from the 400,000 football fans billed to visit the country during the World Cup - such neighbouring countries as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia and Zambia are also looking for spin-offs.

But Zimbabwe risks losing out as development has been stymied by broad economic and political crises. Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation rate of more than 11 million per cent, as well as food, foreign currency and fuel shortages that have crippled the country's ability to build much needed roads, hotels, and airports. Furthermore, a months-long political stand-off between Robert Mugabe and the opposition led by Morgan Tsvangarai, has led the country deeper into international isolation and spooked foreign investors and donors who could have helped to fund infrastructural development.

Local tourism operators and the government are worried that the country will not be ready on time to welcome the influx of football fans. "We are behind time," said Shingi Munyeza, chairman of the Zimbabwe Council for Tourism (ZCT). "I think we all know why we are behind time in our preparations for 2010." Zimbabwe had identified six key south-western towns - Bulawayo, Victoria Falls, Beitbridge, Chiredzi, Masvingo and Gonarezhou National Park for development.

In Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe's premier tourist attraction and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the government hoped to build a new 40,000-seater stadium and refurbish the existing Victoria Falls International Airport. Hoteliers were expected to boost their capacity to accommodate more guests. In Masvingo town, a new stadium and futuristic games village were earmarked while the Buffalo Range airport in Chiredzi was supposed to be expanded.

Beitbridge, Zimbabwe's gateway into South Africa, was expected to shed its largely shantytown status with the building of new houses, a shopping mall, an airport and new roads. In Gonarezhou, part of the 35,000 sq km Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park that brings together South Africa's Kruger National Park and Mozambique's Limpopo National Park, a telecommunication system, new roads and lodges were planned.

But with just 21 months to go before the tourists start arriving, Zimbabwe's preparations are far from on track. Work on four airports at Harare, Victoria Falls, Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo and Buffalo Range has stalled due to lack of funds. While Frederick Kasese, a spokesman for the Masvingo province 2010 World Cup Organising Committee, said they are still raising funds to buy a 100-hectare piece of land where a games village, comprising a nine-hole golf course, conference centre, clubhouse, cultural village and shopping and sporting facilities is planned.

Andrew Langa, the deputy minister of environment and tourism, admitted there had been some problems. "I was in Beitbridge recently and I must say most of the projects we had planned to undertake are far behind schedule and we want to speed it up considering that we are just two years away from the World Cup," he said. "Not much is happening on the broadening of roads in the town. We should be building a hotel, houses and airport in Beitbridge but nothing is being done."

In Gonarezhou, the government recently cancelled leases to 10 private developers after they failed to build lodges in the animal sanctuary. However, Mr Langa said the tourism ministry has finished building new roads, connecting electricity and telecommunications links in the park. He called for the private sector to get involved. "It is not just the government that must play a part, otherwise we may lose out," he said.

There is also new optimism after a power-sharing deal agreed by Mr Mugabe and his two adversaries on Sept 15. "If the agreement holds," said Mr Munyeza, the Zimbabwe Council for Tourism's chairman, "I think we can still make it." Mr Munyeza, also chief executive officer of African Sun, a Pan-African hotel and leisure group, said Fifa recently certified its hotels, a status that enables it to accommodate football fans during the tournament.

While Zimbabwe is struggling, South Africa is ahead of schedule investing $30bn in building and upgrading roads, railways, stadiums, hotels, lodges and security systems. Mozambique is upgrading its hotels and airports while China is financing the construction of a stadium. A tender has been floated for the building of an airport. During a visit by Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, to South Africa last week to assess the progress, he said he was satisfied with the work done so far.

"I am very pleased with what I have seen over the last few days, in particular in the stadiums," Mr Blatter told South African media. * The National