columnBy Eric Bloch
The remarkable tourist drawcards range from the magnificence of the Victoria Falls and Zambezi River, to the finest wildlife parks and reserves on the continent of Africa, from the splendour of the Matobo Hills to the mystic Great Zimbabwe and Khami Ruins, from the beauty of Chimanimani and the Bvumba to that of Nyanga, to the astounding sunsets of Lake Kariba and Mana pools, to name but a few of what Zimbabwe has to offer the tourist.
In addition, Zimbabwe has noteworthy art galleries and museums, ethnic art centres, and much, much more.
The past year has evidenced some significant growth in tourist arrivals, but nevertheless the numbers are far below those Zimbabwe could achieve.
All international tourist destinations sustained a decrease in numbers of visitors during the period 2008 to 2011, because of the financial crisis in US and Europe, but progressively tourist numbers have been increasing. Zimbabwe could draw more visitors than it is currently, which would impact markedly on its troubled economy.
Growth in the tourism sector generates increased employment, not only within the sector, but also downstream among suppliers to the tourist operators. That growth enhances inflows of much-needed foreign exchange, thereby reducing Zimbabwe's massive balance of payments deficits.
However, it does not suffice just to have diverse, appealing drawcards to achieve significant increases in tourist arrivals. Much else is needed. First and foremost, the intending visitors need assurance of security and safety.
But that assurance does not exist for so long as the war veterans and others continue to invade farms, frequently resorting to pronounced violence in order to evict the farm occupants.
Security concerns are also intensified by the extensive escalation in crime in recent years - a reaction to massive poverty that afflicts Zimbabweans and the enforced return to Zimbabwe of thousands who illegally emigrated to other countries, who upon return, are unable to obtain gainful employment.
A second major deterrent to patronising the tourist resources that Zimbabwe has to offer is the intensity of bureaucracy and incompetence confronting arrivals at the country's border posts.
It is untenable that visitors arriving at Beitbridge border post are often obliged to queue for more than four hours in order to gain entry into the country (unless they are willing to pay the touts who can facilitate rapid entry).
Then, after finally gaining entry into the country, the tourist can be stopped between 10 to 15 times at police roadblocks between Beitbridge and Bulawayo, and another six times between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls, or similarly when travelling from Beitbridge to the Eastern Districts and to Harare.
Surely the first of the roadblocks could issue the tourist with a car sticker authorising clearance at all further roadblocks encountered on that day? In like manner, prolonged delays in obtaining entry visas at the country's airports are a major aggravation to the arriving tourist.
The intending tourist is also understandably very concerned about air services to and from Zimbabwe, owing to Air Zimbabwe's inability to service domestic and regional routes.
Those who are prepared to travel to and from Zimbabwe by air are also recurrently frustrated by the appalling inadequacy of airport terminal buildings. It is now more that seven years since the new terminal at Bulawayo was scheduled for completion, during which time the tourist has had to tolerate the "temporary" terminal, with an insufficiency of seating, dilapidated toilets, inadequate check-in desks, paucity of vehicle parking facilities, and may other deficiencies.
To some extent similar faults are found at the terminal at Victoria Falls, the refurbishment and extension thereof also having been scheduled for very long ago, but still not completed.
Exacerbating the reservations and concerns of intending visitors are frequent non-availability of essential utilities, including energy supplies, water supplies in various parts of the country, unreliable telecommunications and internet services. While some of Zimbabwe's roads have been rehabilitated, many remain in appalling states of disrepair, with innumerable potholes and unsafe kerbs. All of these factors militate against Zimbabwe enjoying tourist patronage.
In August 2013 Zimbabwe and Zambia will be co-hosting the United Nations World Tourism Organisation Congress, which will bring thousands of international visitors and delegates to Zimbabwe in general and Victoria Falls in particular, and those visitors will include many from the international media.
If Zimbabwe gears itself up to making good the innumerable issues that are currently tourist deterrents, and ensure unqualified success of the congress and of its attendees' visits to the vast range of tourist attractions available, those thousands can become leading ambassadors and marketers of Zimbabwe as a "must visit" destination for tourists. Doing so will yield enormous benefits to the future economy and, therefore, to Zimbabweans in general.
However, in addition to ensuring that easy arrivals and departures are facilitated, that extensive but non-intrusive security prevails for all the tourists and that a total sufficiency of utilities and other resources prevail. Zimbabwe must also focus intensively upon improving its currently very negative international image. Political stability is a must, as also Zimbabwe must discontinue its repeated haranguing and castigation of many countries, and instead must vigorously pursue harmonious reconciliation, co-operation and collaboration.
If Government would now focus on putting right all that has been deterring tourist patronage heretofore, not only will there be a very substantial increase in tourism earnings, and hence economic enhancement, but some of the tourists would become investors in the many opportunities Zimbabwe has to offer, thereby further beneficiating the economy and improving the presently embattled lot of many Zimbabweans.