Zimbabwe is seeking to boost its tourism trade after several years of decline and wants to attract sports fans traveling to neighboring South Africa for next year’s World Cup.
Several-hundred tour operators, lodges and other tourism companies gathered in Harare to showcase their businesses to buyers from Europe, Asia, America and other parts of Africa.
One of their immediate goals was to take advantage of the estimated 400,000 sports fans due to attend the football World Cup that kicks off in eight months in neighboring South Africa.
Zimbabwe’s Minister of Tourism, Walter Mzembi, says that from the start the tournament, which is being staged for the first time on African soil, was meant to be Africa’s World Cup.
“The bid classifies South Africa as the only venue for competitive play. But for training and camping the region, the neighboring countries, are free to camp teams,” he said. “And I imagine all countries including Zimbabwe are actively seized with this opportunity.”
Mzembi says tourist arrivals to Zimbabwe peaked two years ago at 2.5 million, but they declined by one-third last year. He says this was due primarily to negative publicity and travel warnings about political violence during the country’s national elections.
But many of the warnings have been lifted since the inauguration in February of a unity government of Zimbabwe’s three major parties. Tourist arrivals picked up last year, nearing two million.
Runyararo Murandu is a marketing officer for Ngamo Safaris which packages tours to attractions such as wild game parks, Victoria Falls and the ancient ruins of Greater Zimbabwe.
Speaking in front of an exhibit made up of large tree branches at the tourism trade fair in Harare, he says business is looking up and some World Cup fans have already booked safaris with him.
“Dating back [to] when we started this exhibition there were not a lot of people like now, people exhibiting. [Now] We have international, regional people coming in and this makes for a brighter future,” said Murandu.
Sally Wynn operates the Wild Zambezi web site that provides information on camping and activities in a more remote part of Zimbabwe along the northern Zambezi River.
She says the unity government brought a more positive image of the country abroad. And the introduction of the US dollar and South African Rand to replace the Zimbabwean currency ended hyperinflation and brought goods into the stores.
She says the greatest challenge now is the national park system which has suffered from a lack of funding over the past decade.
“The last few years have been quite seriously detrimental to the wildlife here,” said Wynn. “We hope tourism will help. Because the tourism dollars will enable the national parks system to make its own money and, hopefully, be able to plow that back into protection.”
She says poaching in the parks has increased because of the economic crisis but park rangers are not able to combat it effectively because of a lack of patrol vehicles and fuel.
She hopes foreign tourists and their associations can provide some outside support.
The new government has presented an emergency recovery plan to revive the Zimbabwean economy which declined by some 40 percent during the past 10 years.
Minister Mzembi says tourism is an important part of that plan because it is one of the most resilient sectors of any economy.
“I just hope that the importance that has been attached to it within the context of our short-term emergency recovery program will be commensurate with the resources that we receive because it [tourism] needs stimuli to get everything off the ground,” he said. “But it is the low-hanging fruit. It is the catalyst for economic recovery.”
Mzembi says the industry, which made up some six percent of Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product two years ago could double to 12 percent or more in the next three years.
Tourism has joined agriculture, mining and manufacturing as one of the four pillars of the Zimbabwean economy and as a result he says it could play a major role in reviving economic productivity and creating jobs in the country.