HARARE – Zimbabwe expects tourist arrivals to increase in 2017 to 2,2 million, Parliament’s Budget Office has said, helping the recovery of a fragile economy as the country enjoys a third straight record year for tourism boom.
Tourism is an important component of the Zimbabwean economy and a key source of hard currency for the bankrupt State, best known for the spectacular Victoria Falls, known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya or “Smoke That Thunders” that boasts upmarket resorts and attract visitors from around the world.
Apart from the falls, Zimbabwe also offers safari hunting — some of Africa’s largest game reserves — scenic resorts and the ancient Great Zimbabwe ruins, one of the most important archaeological sites on the continent.
With thrust on promoting and improving the Zimbabwe brand as a competitive tourist destination under the theme International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development — spearheaded by hardworking Tourism and Hospitality minister Walter Mzembi — 0,8 percent growth is projected for 2017.
“Tourist arrivals in Zimbabwe are estimated to reach over 2,2 million by the close of 2017, a development in line with global trends projecting tourism to be the fastest growing economic sector internationally,” Parliament’s Budget Office said in the 2017 first quarter budget performance and outlook report.
“In 2016, the country received 2 167 686 tourist arrivals, five percent up from 2 056 588 received in 2015.
“The sector also generated an estimated $886 million receipts in 2016 and is estimated to contribute 10,9 percent to the gross domestic product. This compares favourably with Zambia which earned $660,1 million.”
In the face of travel warnings, like the latest from the United States (US) State Department, Mzembi — who is in the race to head the UNWTO — has embarked on an image-polishing counterinsurgency consisting in part of handing out junkets to travel writers, travel agents and tour operators and an elaborate diplomatic campaign, lobbying foreign embassies to soften or even lift their travel warnings.
Mzembi and the government have taken some practical steps to reassure visitors, igniting the renewed interest by aviation industry players to service Zimbabwean routes.
Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airways in April introduced direct flights to Victoria Falls from Nairobi and Addis Ababa respectively.
On the other hand, Rwanda Airlines, which introduced the Kigali-Harare direct flights in April and the Turkish Airlines have indicated that they might soon be flying into the newly refurbished Victoria Falls International Airport.
The Airport is poised to attract increased air traffic after it underwent a $150 million facelift which increased passenger handling capacity to 1,5 million per year, up from 500 000.
South African Airways introduced its new Airbus A330-300 aircraft on the Johannesburg-Victoria Falls route after the upgrading.
Meanwhile, the cash-flush State pension fund, National Social Security Authority, has started re-developing its $49 million Beitbridge Hotel into a mixed use asset with shops, offices and residential units.
The hotel has been vacant since June last year following the exit of Zimbabwe’s largest hospitality group by market capitalisation, Rainbow Tourism Group. The group had run the property for two years and exited due to recurrent losses amounting to $2 million.
Parliament’s Budget Office said a decision has to be made to reduce the number of non-security or crime roadblocks on Zimbabwean roads if the tourism sector is to be revived.
This comes as pervasive bribe-seeking police checkpoints are hindering travellers on the roads to Zimbabwe’s famous tourist spots. Police have set up checkpoints almost every 20km along all major highways.
At these checkpoints, stern-faced officers extort tourists for cash, and often detain them for several minutes if they refuse to cough up some dough.
Many tourists who want to visit Victoria Falls would rather fly there directly on the 90-minute flight from Johannesburg, rather than travel by road and along the way visit nature reserves teeming with the “big five” game — lions, elephants, buffalo, leopards, and rhinos.
Tourists have voiced distress over the ubiquitous presence of Zimbabwe Republic Police details on the country’s roads, with over half of respondents in a Zimbabwe National Statistical Agency survey saying they felt harassed by the cops.
Harassment by the police constituted the highest percentage of the reasons not to recommend the country to potential tourists, at 43,2 percent, followed by harassment by Zimbabwe Revenue Authority officers at 14,7 percent.
The Zimbabwe Council for Tourism, which represents the country’s major tourism players, has also slammed the upsurge of harassment and warned that the industry had lost considerable revenue due to the actions of the police.
“Insistence on multiplicity of roadblocks without regard to easing the doing business environment can dent the country’s image in the wake of stiff competition regionally from countries with similar tourism products,” Parliament’s Budget Office warned.