After nearly two decades in the doldrums, Zimbabwe’s tourism sector is enjoying a rebound, with visitors returning in droves to see the majestic Victoria Falls and explore unspoilt safari reserves. The number of foreign visitors to Victoria Falls, the southern African country’s flagship destination, jumped nearly 50 per cent in the first quarter of this year, compared with the same period in 2017, the tourism minister says.
Countrywide, arrivals rose by 15 per cent to 554,417, according to treasury statistics.
Political and economic turmoil under longtime autocratic ruler Robert Mugabe had wrecked the sector, but authorities and tourism operators now believe the industry has a new lease of life.
Mugabe was ousted in November after a 37-year repressive rule during which tourists shunned the country, fearful of police demanding bribes, crumbling infrastructure and scarce fuel.
Cash was also in short supply from 2009, when hyperinflation forced Zimbabwe to abandon its own currency in favour of the US dollar.
“We were in a closed period for a long time,” admitted Tourism Minister Priscah Mupfumira, speaking ahead of key elections on July 30.
Since Emmerson Mnangagwa took over as president from Mugabe in a de facto coup last year, “we are poised for growth,” the minister said.
“There are good vibes from the industry and from the international world — everybody is so positive,” she said.
An influx of tourists is expected to help bring in desperately needed revenue, with the sector already contributing around 10 per cent to GDP.
But visiting Zimbabwe is generally more expensive compared with neighbouring countries. “It is not a cheap holiday,” said Ilan Wiesenbacher, a restaurateur in Victoria Falls, where the Zambezi River plunges over a gorge and raises a mist that can be seen more than 20 km away.
“We have seen a steady rise in numbers,” said Wiesenbacher, manager at the Three Monkeys restaurant.
Lloyd Machaka, who operates Chikopokopo Flights helicopter tours over the Victoria Falls, has also seen more visitors from Malawi and the southern African region.
“Hopefully we will have more investors coming in to build more hotels, bigger hotels. We want more airlines coming here,” said Machaka, standing by one of his helicopters. Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines now fly direct to Victoria Falls’s smart new airport. Zimbabwe has also removed the notorious police roadblocks that had become a constant annoyance for motorists. Typically, drivers reluctantly paid bribes to evade long questioning over minor alleged offences. — AFP
Auntony Zinyange & Susan Njanji