Victoria Falls — President Mugabe and his Zambian counterpart Mr Michael Sata yesterday committed themselves to the use of tourism to drive economic growth in the two countries and challenged African countries to open up borders through the introduction of regional univisa or visa free regimes. The call by the two Heads of State and Government came as United Nations World Tourism Organisation secretary general Mr Taleb Rifai declared that the 20th session of the UNWTO general assembly being co-hosted by Zambia and Zimbabwe in Victoria Falls is the best attended in the history of the organisation.
Officially opening the 20th session of the UNWTO here last night, President Mugabe and President Sata said their governments were committed to using tourism as a driver for economic development within the sector and surrounding communities.
"The hosting of this United Nations specialised agency's general assembly constitutes for us an important milestone in the economic history of our two countries, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) region," said President Mugabe.
"We expect it to leave an indelible mark on our memories and that it be part of our generational legacy, marking a clear turning, pointing the tourism fortunes of our two countries, our region and indeed our continent.
"The selection of this venue, (Victoria Falls) from a number of competing candidates will doubtlessly strengthen our determination to leverage tourism's well-being and advancement of our people in Zambia, Zimbabwe and the whole of Africa.
"We are very enthused by the endorsement of our two countries as worthy hosts of such a meeting and the recognition of this destination as one that is safe and secure for the world's tourists."
President Mugabe said Africa needed to deal with its unfriendly visa and border regimes if it was to seriously tap into tourism's global economic cake.
"The current situation where Africa only has a four percent share of global tourism revenue in spite of its massive natural and cultural tourism resources is a matter of great concern to us," he said.
"There is no way Africa can increase its portion of the global tourism cake without first promoting intra-African travel. Indeed, connectivity of African cities, regions and attractions augurs well for growing Africa's share as it serves ultimately to integrate the African tourism product and its marketing and promotion, which in turn makes it more attractive to the long haul traveler than is the case now.
"It is very critical for Africa to evolve strategies that effectively lure tourists to the continent. The type of seamless border between Livingstone town and Victoria Falls town that has been put in place for purposes of this conference should become the rule rather than the exception for all adjacent touristic border communities throughout Sadc and ultimately throughout Africa.
"Africa can only benefit from increasingly behaving like a single common market."
President Mugabe said he hoped that the dream of a United States of Africa would one day come to fruition.
"It is my fervent hope that the dream and vision of the founders of independent Africa, of a United States of Africa, will become a reality one day sooner rather than later," he said.
President Sata said there was a need for Zimbabwe and Zambia to continue exploring best possible ways to improve the tourism sector.
This, he said, would ensure that the two economies benefited immensely from the industry.
He said that the UNWTO general assembly had to come up with initiatives that would help the two governments come up with favourable tourism policies.
The support and subsequently growth of tourism, President Sata, noted would help improve communities.
"I wish to call for an increase in the promotion of sustainable tourism so that the sector continues to grow," he said. "Among other things, tourism has to help improve the welfare and livelihoods of locals. The 20th session comes against a global realisation that tourism can contribute significantly to the economy."
President Sata said the co-hosting of the general assembly by Zimbabwe and Zambia created a platform for the two countries to improve their bilateral relations.
"In congratulating you in your landslide victory, I would like to re-affirm our government desire to further strengthen our already warm bilateral relations," he said.
In his remarks, Mr Rifai said his organisation was committed to promoting tourism growth in sub Saharan Africa.
"We affirm our commitment to place tourism high on the political and economic agenda and to ensure that we co-operate ever more to promote policies that ensure sustainable and exclusive growth in this industry," he said.
Mr Rifai said he was pleased with participation in the 20th session of the UNWTO general assembly which he said was the largest ever in terms of attendance.
"This session saw participation from 121 full delegates from member states, 140 delegates from all over the world, 750 other delegates, 900 delegates from the media and the private sector and 49 foreign ministers," he said.
The UNWTO general assembly opened on Saturday and is expected to end on Friday.