AS Zimbabwe and Zambia continue preparations to co-host the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) general assembly in August, the world premier tourism body's technical inspection team has expressed concern over delays in tackling delicate issues critical in enabling the successful hosting of the event.
UNWTO regional director for Africa Ousmane Ndiaye said Zimbabwe should liberalise its airspace and implement a visa-friendly system for the country and the rest of the continent to grow their share of the tourism market from the present paltry 4% to double digits by 2020.
Speaking in Harare on Tuesday soon after jetting into the country to assess the preparedness to host the mega tourism event, Ndiaye said government's protectionist policy was slowing down tourism growth as evidenced by the single percentage digits market the country currently enjoys compared to the potential it possesses.
"Africa is only enjoying 4% of the tourism market when there is huge movement of people that is creating huge opportunities for its people," said Ndiaye. "We want to increase it and to do so we should be opening up our skies," he said.
"The liberalisation of our transport system and visa facilitation is very important."
Ndiaye's calls follow similar sentiments by Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) chief executive Karikoga Kaseke and Tourism and Hospitality minister Walter Mzembi who have bemoaned the impact of a stringent visa regime and regimented air system on tourism.
The current aviation policy is believed to be discouraging the involvement of private players while favouring struggling national carrier Air Zimbabwe.
The policy requires new airlines to develop other routes, a process that takes at least two years, according to aviation experts.
Whereas international airlines like British Airways, KLM and Emirates are vying to land on Zimbabwe's runways in respect of the Open Skies Policy, the situation is different on the domestic front as major local routes like the Harare-Bulawayo-Victoria Falls routes are a preserve of state-controlled Air Zimbabwe.
Following a meeting between government and players in the tourism sector in September last year in which the latter pleaded with the Transport ministry to open up the domestic skies, Kaseke said government was working on a positive solution which would be announced "in the next few months".
However, nothing tangible has materialised to date, prompting the visiting Ndiaye to add his voice to demands for liberalisation of the country's airspace.
Mzembi, who said Zimbabwe would receive a projected three million visitors in 2013, urged authorities to deal with challenges faced at Zimbabwe's ports of entry.
"Statistics already show that 89% of our arrivals are intra-Africa," said Mzembi. "So why not make that even easier for ourselves," he asked. "Business tourism is being frustrated by our visa regime which is too bureaucratic, lengthy and expensive and literally discourages travel into Zimbabwe."
Global travel and tourism generates US$1,2 trillion in direct income; receives nearly a billion people; employs 240 million people, and has a global impact on gross domestic product believed to be in the region of US$6 trillion. Of this, Africa's share is only 4%.
Even if domestic routes were to be opened up to other players and air travel to Victoria Falls was easily available, the resort town's airport is too small and still has to be upgraded in line with UNWTO recommendations.
"It's the same perennial problem," said Mzembi of the transport and visa issues. "You can predict with accuracy that come December, Beitbridge will be clogged and our airports will be overburdened with traffic. So we need to fix the reception issues."
He said most conference delegates may have to land at Zambia's Harry Nkumbula Airport in Livingstone in the event of failure to upgrade the Victoria Falls Airport on time. For their part, the Zambians have begun upgrading the Livingstone Airport which already has a bigger capacity than Victoria Falls Airport.
Documents seen by the Zimbabwe Independent at the South-West Regional Tourism Development offices in Livingstone reveal the Zambians expect to complete their preparations and upgrades by June.
Other developments include the upgrading of ablution facilities, an inter-city bus terminus and street lighting along Livingstone's roads.