HARARE – Tourism minister Walter Mzembi has unveiled a blueprint for putting the country on the travel map, including a proposal that the queen and President Robert Mugabe should sit down for tea together.
Mzembi, a member of Mugabe’s Zanu PF ruling party for eight years, says that there remains “so much love” between the two heads of state and that either London or Harare would be a fine venue for a “get-together for a cup of tea”.
“(The UK and Zimbabwe) are so much in love with each other. (There has been) some kind of love-hate relationship born out of a family feud,” Mzembi said.
Relations with the UK have been strained for years, with the British government taking a dim view of the rule, beset by corruption and human rights abuses, of the country’s ageing president, and Mugabe in turn accusing the UK of interfering in its former colony.
But Mzembi, speaking to Telegraph Travel at the Zimbabwean embassy on the Strand in London as part of his campaign to be elected head of the World Tourism Organisation, the UN’s travel body, said Zimbabwe remains a “home from home” for the British, adding that the UK’s fondness for Zim is vital to the country’s tourism sector.
Britain is Zimbabwe’s largest European holiday market, with travellers drawn to impressive natural features such as the mighty Zambezi, Victoria Falls and a national park the size of Wales.
Accordingly, the Tourism minister is keen to see a return of direct flights between the UK and Zimbabwe.
“I have always looked forward to a day when the British make the decision to come back directly to Zimbabwe,” he said, adding that though Britons must fly via Ethiopia or South Africa, the country’s new £120 million Victoria Falls airport, opened in November, was “the biggest game changer to Zimbabwean and regional tourism”.
He spoke proudly of Zimbabwe’s international appeal.
“Our chief product in Zimbabwe is peace and stability,” said Mzembi. “It doesn’t matter where the location of a wonder of the world, if it is in a conflict zone nobody will visit.
“Zimbabwe has a 34-year record where not one tourist life has been lost due to conflict. I say that because it is important to assure the travelling public that when they visit your country they are safe.”
Mzembi was referring to the kidnapping and subsequent deaths of six foreign tourists, including two Britons, in 1982, believed to be the act of political rebels in the Matabeleland province.
He added that the Zimbabwean people were the second most important product followed by the country’s biodiversity.
“(Our biodiversity) has been kept largely authentic, original and undisturbed with very sound conservation models that have become models for the region,” he said.
The country’s wildlife, which includes the Big Five, has had to contend with severe drought as well as rife poaching. Only last year the country’s park authorities were forced to sell off wild animals to save them from the drought. But Mzembi said the conservation issues were pan-African and that solutions must be sought as a continent.
Among other plans to boost Zimbabwe’s position as a premier destination is Mzembi’s aim to have the country host the World Cup in 2034, using stadiums relocated brick by brick from Qatar after the conclusion of the 2022 tournament.
“I dream big, and I don’t think I dream impractical. My dream for the World Cup is based on integration of strength and effort that are neighbours to Zimbabwe, like South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia,” he said. “Nothing is impossible.”
In 2014, Mzembi told The Telegraph that it was the now-disgraced Sepp Blatter who had sparked his dream of Zimbabwe hosting the football tournament. The Foreign Office says that the economic situation in Zimbabwe is “increasingly fragile”.
In May, Mzembi will contest elections to become director of the UNWTO, hoping to become the first African to do so. He has said the organisation needs to be tougher with national governments in a climate where security issues and instability threaten tourism around the world.
Speaking of the UK, he said that Brexit should provide the country an opportunity to focus on fostering international relations.
“The current administration is too preoccupied with the self,” he said. “Too inward-looking and nationalistic, to the point where they are indifferent to anything happening elsewhere.
“I hope Brexit comes and passes so England can look out again as it has always been known to.”