THE starting gun will not be fired for the next seven months, but the buzz on television, newspapers and radio programmes; the music galas, roadshows and infrastructure touch-ups, all indicate that Zimbabwe is preparing for the co-hosting, with Zambia, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation 2013 General Assembly. The event is slated for the last week of August and the three UNTWO inspectors, executive director and head of delegation, Zottan Smoggy, Deputy Director for Africa, Helder Thomas and director of programmes Pearl Blanca have expressed satisfaction with Zimbabwe's preparation so far.
When Zimbabwe won the bid to co-host with Zambia, at the 20th session of the General Assembly in South Korea, two years ago, before the ink was even dry, many sceptics were asking about the benefits of hosting the mega event, probably the only such tourism event in about the next 400 years.
Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister Walter Mzembi and Zimbabwe Tourism Authority chief executive Karikoga Kaseke were seen as people merely grandstanding, but so far indications are that the benefits far outweigh the pain, the work, the expenditure and the process of hosting the event.
After all, we made history by being the second ever time that the UNWTO General Assembly will be held on African soil after Senegal hosted the mega event in 2007. Our mere ability to win the bid against all odds and our ability to successfully co-host the event, will certainly leave the Zimbabwean footprint on the world map. It is a generational legacy, something that many generations to come might never experience, given that the bi-annual mega event rotates among the 180 member states on the UN tourism family.
But the focus of this particular instalment is the benefit to the ordinary people of the Victoria Falls. Besides the infrastructure development in terms of roads, water supply, hospital facilities the airport and the job opportunities that have followed, the people of Victoria Falls have already felt the impact of the hosting of the General Assembly.
The combination of combative ZTA chief executive Kaseke and workhorse Tourism Minister Mzembi has been hands-on and rolled out awareness programmes that have seen the people of Victoria Falls enjoying pre-hosting road shows, music galas and carnivals.
Never in the history of the Victoria Falls have the ordinary people been exposed to a free entertainment rollercoaster. Never in the history of Victoria Falls have most of Zimbabwe's greatest musicians played for free.
In May last year, during the Africa Travel and Tourism Association (ATTA) conference ZTA took advantage of the gathering and brought in music icon Oliver Mtukudzi for free at the official UNWTO main venue, the Elephant Hills Hotel golf course.
It was warming up the venue. It was for free and the first of its kind to Victoria Falls. Victoria Falls residents responded en masse.
A few months later, in August, when the official countdown to the co-hosting UNWTO started, ZTA for the first time, brought a roadshow that temporarily brought business to a rattling halt in Victoria Falls and was subsequently followed by a free all-night-long musical concert featuring Mtukudzi again, Sulumani Chimbetu, Iyasa, Fungisai Zvakavapano-Mashavave and many other local artistes. Again the residents responded en masse.
The year 2012 closed in style in Victoria Falls with a three-day carnival, roadshows and three music galas. An almost full complement of Zimbabwe music genres represented by Alick Macheso, Jah Prayzah, Sulumani Chimbetu, Mbare Chimurenga Choir, Energy Mutodi, Sandra Ndebele and Winky D, among others, played for free at Chinotimba Stadium in all-night gigs.
The ordinary person in Victoria Falls, about 900km from Harare had never had the chance to watch this plethora of musicians play, let alone for free. Thanks to the UNWTO General Assembly.
Hotels and lodges recorded brisk business and there was accommodation crisis in the falls over the festive season due to the three-day carnival.
Some of the musicians have only been to Victoria Falls for the first time, courtesy of the UNWTO countdown gigs. Because of this, the musicians were mobbed and their vehicles were blocked by residents who jostled to have a glimpse of them, before they played. It made the street carnival an enigma and a rare spectacle.
When Zimbabwe started bidding to host, it sounded much like the proverbial dream of an old man suckling from his mother!
Indeed, it sounded like a distant mirage but ZTA and the Ministry of Tourism and Hospitality Industry took the challenge and treaded in a jungle where even elephants feared to tread.
For tiny, impoverished and sanctions-hit Zimbabwe, with an economy slowly climbing out of the dustbin, wrestling the bid from rich nations like Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and Russia was akin to a mosquito wrestling an elephant. It sounded much a mismatch.
With empty pockets and nothing but their big brains and sleek tongues, the Zimbabwean delegation took the bull by the horns and within four days of their arrival, by the personal admission of the UNWTO secretary general Tariq Rifai, the tables had been turned as embassy after embassy, accredited to Spain was approached and equipped with the bid.
Today, Zimbabwe is basking in the glory of winning the bid to co-host, with Zambia, the general assembly breathing a new impetus into Zimbabwe's image as one of Africa's most attractive and safest tourist destination.That the hosting of the mega event brings to the Victoria Falls, delegates from about 180 countries, speaks volumes about Zimbabwe's international image.
Zimbabweans in their broad totality should support the project and live the brand, "Zimbabwe: A World of Wonders". So far, the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe has been thrown a US$150 million lifeline to expand and refurbish the Victoria Falls International Airport with effect from next month.
The Victoria Falls Hospital has also been allocated US$6,9 million, roads rehabilitation and maintenance allocated US$3,7 million and upgrading of water supply system US$15 million.
There have been presentations to make sure the companies in Victoria Falls get access to the US$40 million Distressed and Marginalised Companies Fund, set aside for companies in Matabeleland. So far, 44 tourism and hospitality companies have applied for funding. There has also been a move to open a facility for the companies to access the US$70 Zimbabwe Economic and Trade Revival Facility from the Africa Export and Import Bank.
Lastly, there have also been efforts to open a credit facility for the US$30 million from the South African International Development Bank that will come through the International Bank of Zimbabwe because in the past the companies in Victoria Falls have been failing to access the facility direct from South Africa.
The good thing, though, is that the UNWTO inspectors led by regional director for Africa Mr Ousmane Ndiaye, is happy with the preparation so far.
Whatever it takes, Zimbabwe seems to have really moved towards credible hosting of the UNWTO General Assembly. The countdown continues.