Zimbabwe Tourism on the Rebound

Zimbabwe has been on a bit of a roller coaster for the last few years. As the political and economic climate has teetered between prosperity and instability, so has the tourism industry. But now the country has finally stabilized, and things seem to be back on track for good.

In the 1990s Zimbabwe was a fairly stable and prosperous nation, and hosted 1.5 million visitors per year (or 2.2 million, depending on what sources you use). Some came for business purposes, and others came to gawk at signature attractions such as Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park.

But when president Robert Mugabe began implementing unpopular policies and strong-arming the opposition in late 1999, that all changed. After “repatriating” white-owned farms to black Zimbabweans, the agricultural-based economy slid into chaos and inflation spiraled out of control. Millions fled the country amid a climate of fear and despair, and the international community responded with condemnation and sanctions.

The tourism industry also went into freefall. Throughout the mid-2000s the number of tourists rose and fell, at one point declining by 75% compared to 1999. Hotels often faced less than 20% occupancy, and several airlines ceased service to the country.

Things did not start to improve until 2008, when a power-sharing agreement was reached in the government and sanctions were lifted. Agricultural production slowly picked up, and inflation finally fell when the economy was “dollarized” in 2009. The government also adopted an “open skies” policy which led to a dozen regional and international airlines reintroducing flights to the country.

No longer the “basketcase” country of the continent, Zimbabwe tourism has been steadily rebounding for the last five years. The latest UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) statistics show that the number of tourists is almost back to 1999 levels. According to the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA), the country recorded a 12 per cent increase in visitors in the first half of 2013, with arrivals reaching 859,995 compared to 767,393 recorded during the same period last year. The elections in July 2013 didn’t even seem to deter visitors – there was no unrest associated with the polling, and visitor numbers stayed high throughout the summer.

Zimbabwe’s hotels and attractions remained accessible during the turmoil of the last decade, but were underused and somewhat neglected. Now that tourist arrivals have picked up and the economy is on steady footing again, the industry is investing time and money into improving and refreshing its attractions.

For example, new lodges have been built in Hwange National Park during the last 18 months, and new tourism infrastructure is being developed in places like Matopos, Mana Pools and Kariba. Hilton plans to build a $145 million hotel and office complex in Harare, and many older hotels are getting facelifts. There are even plans for a Disney-style theme park near Victoria Falls, though many think this idea is misguided.

The country has hosted several international events intended to draw business and leisure tourists, including the Harare International Carnival, the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair, and the Harare International Festival of the Arts. And as if to definitively announce its tourism turnaround, Zimbabwe hosted the UNWTO conference in August 2013, during which it aggressively promoted its “brand” to hundreds of delegates from potential tourism markets around the world.

It’s true that the country still isn’t perfect. Mugabe’s dictatorial style and dislike of both internal and external critics means that visitors from more open and democratic countries have to adjust their expectations. Mobile phone and e-mail telecommunications are spotty and presumably monitored. You have to be careful where you take photos, and “security” roadblocks are found every 30 miles or so. Water and electric service can be erratic in some places, and electronic banking is limited to big cities.

But for those willing to endure some restrictions, Zimbabwe is a worthwhile destination, and it’s fortunate that it’s back on the tourism map.

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