The just ended United Nations tourism conference, which was touted as a huge success by the Zimbabwe government and U.N. officials, has turned out to be a major disappointment that left many small businesses in debt.
The bearer of this sad news was the state newspaper, the Chronicle, which reported that many hopeful businesses were "set to make heavy losses after the anticipated brisk business from delegates failed to materialize".
The event took place at Victoria Falls and ended in Livingstone, Zambia, on Thursday, boasting attendance by over 1200 delegates. But according to the Chronicle, "most entrepreneurs said they had not made any sales as no single delegate had visited their exhibition tent" by the second day of the conference.
The exhibition area was set up on the Elephant Hills Hotel golf course, with each business paying for exhibition space. Those from out of town also had to pay travel and accommodation expenses. Believing they would have many customers, many small businesses borrowed the money, and must now pay it back.
The Chronicle quoted one vendor who travelled from Chitungwiza as saying: "My expectations have not been met. I have been here for three days but I have not made a sale. Visitors are not coming here. I ordered stuff worth $600 and I was hoping to get $2 000, but so far I have nothing."
The report said the entrepreneurs "blamed the tight programme" which visitors had to follow, "which made it impossible for delegates to find free time to move around and shop".
The conference was meant to discuss ways to develop tourism in mostly poor, underdeveloped countries, but poor planning mismanagement appear to have been the order of the day.
Economist Tony Hawkins told SW Radio Africa that he was not surprised at the outcome, given the controversial and difficult circumstances under which it was held.
"For a long time there had been concerns that it was being held at the wrong time, just after elections. It was being held when the government is very short of money and it was unlikely to be well planned and well organized. So I'm not terribly surprised this has happened. It was pretty predictable actually," Hawkins said.
Meanwhile, it has also been revealed that the conference was not even organized by Zimbabweans. According to the Associated Press, management consultants were hired to organize the event, because Zimbabwe "did not have local expertise to meet the UNWTO's specific needs for all the arrangements".
Hawkins said that Zimbabwe is short of expertise in the area of tourism, explaining that this was not always the case.
And in a more bizarre move, the original slogan for the event was allegedly changed from "Zimbabwe-Africa's Paradise" to "Zimbabwe-A World of Wonders", following complaints by "non-Christian communities" who had taken offense to the word paradise.
Comments by the tourism organisation's secretary general Taleb Rifai, suggest that he may have been oblivious to what these local businesses were experiencing, while the elite circles toured Grace Mugabe's dairy farm.
Rifai is quoted as saying: "The excitement, optimism and hope this meeting has created made everything worthwhile." Unfortunately, this much hyped event brought none of those things to the poor businesses that paid for space at a golf course, lining the pockets of government officials who organized it.