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Returning tour operators offer a diverse selection of unique experiences

Confidence rising in Zimbabwe’s tourism potential

Cheryl Robertson, eTN  Apr 14, 2011

ZIMBABWE (eTN) - International tour operators and specialist tour organisers are taking the bull by the horns and returning to Zimbabwe despite the on-going political uncertainty. They include overland adventure companies, birdwatching specialists, a local author’s tour, and a school's rugby tour.

Suffolk UK-based overland adventure tour company Dragoman Travel has been “gagging to get back into Zimbabwe for the past two years,” according to its Managing Director Charlie Hopkinson, but was reluctant to do so because of the country’s political and economical instability.

“The overriding principle was to head back to Zimbabwe as soon as the economy stabilized,” he said. “Politically Zimbabwe is still under a question mark, but tourists are safe.”

The company believed that the overland experience would be greatly improved with Zimbabwe on the itinerary rather than Zambia. It subsequently rerouted its codeshare trips with Intrepid Guerba Kenya from Nairobi to Victoria Falls, which, being a core section of their Nairobi to Cape Town route, takes in Great Zimbabwe, the national parks of Matobo and Hwange, and Victoria Falls (rather than Livingstone).

“Whether or not it will improve bookings remains to be seen,” said Hopkinson, concluding that the general feeling was that although it was a commercial risk to include Zimbabwe because [of] the uncertainty still prevalent in the country, the passenger experience was greatly improved."

The first Dragoman truck destined to return to Zimbabwe sets off from Nairobi on April 17, 2011.

Currently touring Zimbabwe for a week is the Independent Schools Barbarians rugby team from the UK. Chris Terry, Chairman of the Barbarians said that a team had been invited out by the schools authority of the Zimbabwe Rugby Union to play four local school teams.

“As intrepid tourists, we like the idea of being the first UK schools team back into Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe does not attract the nicest of publicity. Reading, seeing and listening to the media, you’d form the impression that normal life doesn’t exist there, and although life there is not as it once was, it does go on,” he said.

“The situation in Zimbabwe is delicate, but I personally believe this is a wonderful opportunity to experience a different environment and not one to pass up. We are all very excited by the prospect,” 12-year-old pupil Jacob Poulton from Portsmouth Grammar School said before departure. Chris Dossett, director of sport at the school said: “The chance to play in Zimbabwe on the first schools tour there is an extraordinary and unique opportunity.”

The Barbarians team in Zimbabwe consists of 27 players. Its manager and head of delegation Edwin Doran, formerly of Edwin Doran Sports Travel, was quoted by a local newspaper NewsDay as saying that the aim was to re-establish the friendship between Zimbabwe schools rugby and UK schools rugby so that more UK schools will tour the country in future.

Overland company Explore is also returning this year after pulling out of the country some 10 years ago. Peter Eshelby, Africa product manager at Explore, said: “Following recent developments, including the formation of a cross-party government and the abandonment of the domestic currency, Zimbabwe has stabilized sufficiently to allow the return of tourists to enjoy its stunning landscapes and wildlife. Once a very popular destination for Explore and a cornerstone in our safari program, this year we are re-introducing our customers to its natural highlights.”

Explore’s new 15-day South East Africa tour of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa departs on July 29, 2011 and includes Victoria Falls, Hwange National Park, Great Zimbabwe Ruins, and the Eastern Highlands and Mutare before heading on to Mozambique.

The rich and rare birdlife dwelling in this Eastern Highlands region had led Birdwatching Breaks based in Scotland to offer a new tour departing August 24, taking in the remote areas of central Mozambique and Eastern Zimbabwe. Citing the reason for return being that the two countries have emerged as tourist destinations again after recent problems, the company has so far experienced considerable interest coming from the UK market, according to Mark Finn, principal leader of Birdwatching Breaks. He said the company had run this itinerary before in 1996 but nothing since.

Participants are expected to see some range-restricted species, and in Zimbabwe will concentrate on the relatively unknown birding area of the Bvumba (or Vumba) Highlands, home to vulnerable species including Swynnerton’s Robin, Blue Swallow, Roberts’ Prinia, and Chirinda Apalis, plus the unusual Buff-spotted Flufftail. Zimbabwe has over 670 recorded bird species, 10 of which are globally threatened.

Zimbabwean author Douglas Rogers and UK-based tour operator Aardvark Safaris have on offer starting May 7 a tour to places described in his book, “The Last Resort,” a frank, lighthearted yet moving true-life recount about his parents and their struggle to keep their backpacker lodge in the Eastern Highlands despite the threat of eviction. The author, now resident in New York, will accompany tour participants who will meet some of the local characters appearing in the book.

“I am under no illusions about the politics in Zimbabwe, but I would like to show that Zimbabwe is not all about Mugabe and an evil corrupt regime,” said Rogers.

“It’s a country full of brave, funny, creative, and inspiring people, doing incredible things despite all the chaos. They are not helpless victims, as much of the media coverage of Zimbabwe tends to end up conveying.”

“In my bigger imaginings, I hope that ultimately The Last Resort can do for Zimbabwe what John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, did for Savannah, Georgia - spurred an entire tourist industry,” said Rogers.

Confidence rising in Zimbabwe’s tourism potential
Dragoman overlanders stop for lunch in Zimbabwe

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