31 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Let's Not Lose Sight of UNWTO

opinion

The inclusive government has had ups and downs, too many to mention, that have distracted it from tackling the real bread and butter issues. While Zimbabweans would gladly welcome an end to political theatrics that have been on show during the lifespan of the coalition, there is collective trepidation over what the future would hold for the country should the elections take a familiar path, reminiscent to the bloody 2008 polls.

One of the programmes beneficial to Zimbabwe that could easily jeopardise the country's promising future should the situation go horribly wrong is the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly to be co-hosted with Zambia in August.

The assembly gives the country an important platform to turn the tables and repair its image that has been bruised and battered internationally due to years of needless political conflict, economic malaise and the resultant social strife.

The assembly gives the country a perfect opportunity to rebrand, reshape perceptions, open the country's doors to elusive foreign direct investment and drive up tourist arrivals. But all this could come to naught should the elections produce another contested outcome. While politicians, as led by the principals in the unity government, are doing a commendable job by preaching peace and reducing areas of conflict as evidenced by the recent constitutional breakthrough, those behind the UNWTO General Assembly preparations should avoid being caught napping.

Concerted efforts must be made to derive maximum benefits from the UNWTO as those who would descend on Victoria Falls are opinion leaders whose views about Zimbabwe carry a lot of weight in their respective countries. The country can draw inspiration from how other countries have benefited from their God-given resources. For example, the Niagara Falls straddling the border between the United States and Canada have been cited as a source of inspiration for explorers, travellers, artists, authors, filmmakers, residents and visitors alike. Each year, over 12 million people visit the tourist attraction, resulting in revenues of up to US$2,5 billion.

The funds realised from managing this natural wonder have been credited for transforming the tourism resort resulting in new buildings, pristine roads, and low property taxes accruing to residents of the two countries among other benefits. The Niagara Falls pales in comparison to the Victoria Falls which lie on the mighty Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia - the two countries co-hosting the UNWTO indaba.

But one paradox exists.The Victoria Falls and all the other tourist attractions earned the country a paltry US$1 billion last year - the first time in three decades that preliminary estimates for tourism revenues hit that mark, as compared to the US$2,5 billion realised by the Niagara Falls alone. Tourism revenues have traditionally ranged between US$400 million to US$600 million per annum in Zimbabwe, a pittance compared to what the Niagara Falls are generating. All hope is not lost though as the UNWTO assembly could be the turning point. To maximise the benefits accruing from the co-hosting of the assembly, a number of areas need to be attended to other than sprucing up the resort town of Victoria Falls by upgrading its facilities.

The revision of the country's visa regime is one of the important factors that need revisiting and action. Generally, there are three categories for Visas - category A where no visa is required, category B where a visa is required on arrival and category C where a visa must be obtained before departure from the tourist's home country.

China and India, the most populous countries in the world contributing extensively to Niagara Falls' visitors are currently classified in category C by Zimbabwe, which is not helpful for a country desperately in need of visitors given that citizens of countries in this group require up to six weeks to obtain such an important travel document. There is therefore a compelling need to re-classify some of the countries under category C.

There must also be timeous removal of duty on capital goods required by hotels, restaurants and cafés to help in sprucing them up. Municipal works must also be completed on time to give visitors an unforgettable experience, in addition to the completion of all the other improvements at Victoria Falls Airport. It is not only in Victoria Falls where the municipality needs to tighten their belt. There is a general state of decadence in all of the country's cities, towns and growth points - heaps of uncollected garbage, the existence of potholes, leaking pipes, overflowing sewerage, unreliable water supply and malfunctioning public street lighting.

Another hurdle that Zimbabwe has to cross is its over reliance on Victoria Falls as a tourist destination, with the other resorts such as Kariba being under-marketed. The world over, massive water bodies like Lake Kariba form the backbone of tourist development if marketed properly.

Mozambique, South Africa, Kenya and Malawi in Africa are the best examples of counries where tourism and travel has revolved around lakes, dams and seas among others. But it appears following the crisis that rattled the tourism industry from 1996, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority has all but virtually surrendered marketing Lake Kariba and concentrated on Victoria Falls. A significant decrease in tourist arrivals and closure of some hotels and lodges has been the result as occupancy rates continue to decline in Kariba. Refocusing attention to the eastern highlands, Masvingo and other attractions would also help lure tourists, meaning more revenues, more investment and other benefits.

The issue of airlines also needs to be addressed to boost the sector.

More than anything else, as 2013 is an election year, the management of the country's electoral processes must also see Zimbabwe remaining a safe destination, with one of the key priorities being reining in political violence. Coupled with that is also the need to resolve disturbances at some of the country's tourism spots such as the Save Conservancy. There are also reports of poaching and other unlawful commercial activities at such places as Mana Pools or Sinamatela National Park.

In his 2013 National Budget statement, Finance Minister Tendai Biti made reference to the need to address what he termed self-induced policy distortions affecting the tourism sector. He noted that there are a host of self-induced policy distortions and own goals that clearly create some wrong perceptions of the country within and outside of Zimbabwe.

To name a few, these include the siege mentality, conflict, hate speech and intolerance reflected in the media; perceptions of a police state as reflected through endless and meaningless roadblocks that are breeding all kinds of vice.

Despite all this we, however, have all the confidence that the spirit demonstrated in reaching a deal on the new constitution will continue to prevail.

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