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Diary of a traveller: Meeting Mr Mugabe

Friendly ... Air Zimbabwe's cabin staff

17/11/2009 00:00:00
by Scott Ramsay
Welcoming ... Scenes from the Harare International Airport

Beginning today, we publish the first of a five-part series of diary entries by New Zimbabwe.com's travel correspondent Scott Ramsay who recently spent two weeks in Zimbabwe as a guest of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority which is aiming to arouse international interest in the country's tourism sector:

THE Zimbabwe Tourism Authority invited New Zimbabwe.com to visit the country. So last week, along with a delegation of other international media representatives, a group of about ten people boarded a plane from London to Harare.

It’s no secret that in the past decade the country under Robert Mugabe’s rule has struggled to maintain a happy public image. Scarcely a week goes by without negative coverage.

The “Zimbabwe situation” is old news and needs no introduction. So the freebie trip offered to journalists (and travel agents) was clearly intended to garner some fresh, positive impressions in the international press.

The ZTA invitation was a brave move. Most indications are that the new government of national unity has given people some tenuous hope, but most people believe the social and political order is still a long way from stabilisation, let alone improvement.

So as I was flying out on Air Zimbabwe, I was wondering what the tourism authority expected us to write. They must have known that “objective” coverage would rehash the existing problems.

I couldn’t help notice that there were hardly any journalists from the major western newspapers, which have traditionally been staunchly anti-Mugabe. Were ZTA selective in whom they invited, or was it a genuine attempt to open the front door to everyone, regardless of what we would find in the back yard?

I had last been in Zimbabwe in 1995 on holiday at Victoria Falls and Lake Kariba. I had fantastic memories of the country, the landscape and the people. I remember Harare as being vibrant, slick and tourist friendly.

The Victoria Falls was – and remains – one of those world-famous sites which genuinely deserve adjectives like “awesome” and “breathtaking”. The small town nearby was a world class tourism Mecca, where thousands of international visitors frequented the markets, restaurants and adventure companies.

The wildlife viewing at Lake Kariba was some of the best I’ve been lucky enough to experience in many years of visiting a variety of wildlife wildernesses. I had one of my best holidays ever.


What I remember especially were the Shona and Ndebele people: enormously welcoming.

As I landed on the tarmac, and the airplane’s door opened, I breathed in the hot, dry air, and grinned all the way to the terminal. Living in London eats away at one’s soul, and smelling the Zimbabwean earth, and seeing the big smiles on the ground crew’s faces was pure tonic.

I was glad to be back on southern African turf, the land of my birth and upbringing, and home to six generations of the Afrikaans side of my family. My grandfather on my Scottish side of the family was born in Bulawayo, and I’ve always wondered whether that entitles me to a Zimbabwean passport – I would consider it, given the friendliness of the locals and the hidden potential of the country.

My editor from one of my previous jobs told me that he wouldn’t recommend travelling to the country, for safety and political reasons. I have always respected his opinions highly, and I partly agreed with him. But I resolved to take a different stance – for sure, Zimbabwe is struggling, but as usual in a damaged country, it’s the waiter, or shop assistant, or porter or bartender who suffers. And I desperately wanted to believe that there is enough positive progress to promote the country to international tourists, so that the locals can benefit from new tourism dollars.

Not one of my family, friends or colleagues wants Zimbabwe to lurk in the political and social doldrums. We all want this magnificent country to thrive. I decided to go to Zimbabwe, and see things for myself, noting the positive in everything I encountered, while definitely not going ignoring the negatives.

Friday, October 16

We arrived early in the morning. Driving into Harare, I noted a few things. The roads were in need of a serious fix. And there were few cars. There was plenty of litter everywhere. There was no maintenance of public gardens.

Some shops were stocked with goods, but the vast majority were almost empty or vacant. There were very few motor dealerships or shops offering mid- to high-end products. Public buses were non-existent. Most people were walking. Some were taking mini-bus taxis.

I picked up a copy of the state-sponsored newspaper The Herald, which was handed out on the plane, and soon realised it was only government propaganda. While taking notes, an Air Zimbabwe official, who was travelling with us, saw me jotting on my notepad, and remarked that he was concerned about what I was seeing, and was worried what I would write.

We were checked into the Meikles Hotel, considered to be the best hotel in Harare. It’s clean and, and the service is great, but it looks tired, in need of a refurbishment – especially since it considers itself “5-star”. The rooms are no more elaborate than a Holiday Inn in South Africa.

But considering that it’s situated in the middle of a dilapidated city, it is a shining light, attracting well-to-do international and local visitors. At $250 a night for a room, it’s ridiculously expensive.

But I imagine it’s tough to maintain a five-star property in Zimbabwe, and I imagine it’s difficult to find suitable suppliers – hence prices are perhaps necessarily high. (Like in all hotels, though, there’s room for negotiation when booking a room; more so at the Meikles, considering that the concierge told me occupancies sit at around 35%).

We were then supposed to go to Sanganai, the travel trade exhibition and networking event (hosted by Zimbabwe Tourism), where travel agents and others were able to meet local tourism operators. But at the last minute, we were told that we were going to meet President Robert Mugabe at the State House, his residence in Harare.

On arrival, we were asked to hand our passports in at security, then we were ushered into a marquee, where the Zimbabwe national soccer team was waiting to be addressed by the President. We waited for an hour, then asked to line up along a red carpet, down which Mugabe and his bodyguards walked, greeting everyone.

Help at hand ... The United Nations' Geoffrey Lipman listens to Mugabe's speech to travel expo

Speeches followed, and Mugabe spoke for about 45 minutes, mostly to the soccer team, but he also addressed the visiting media and travel agents. He sat next to a variety of ministers, as well as Geoffrey Lipman, the UN World Tourism Organisation delegate, who was in the country to help Zimbabwe improve its tourism image.

All the time while Mugabe spoke, a well-adorned military official stood behind the President. I never found it who it was, but judging from the age and uniform, it could have been a general.

Once the speeches were over, we were told by a government official that we were “lucky”, because Mugabe had agreed to have his photo taken with the delegates. Most of the international media clamoured to do so, and each group from each country duly waited their turn.

Afterwards, I chatted to one of the reporters from a well-known South African newspaper. He told me that two farms had allegedly been “invaded” the previous week; and he chatted about how Mugabe’s national prosecutor had recently arrested Roy Bennett, the MDC’s treasurer (and strong supporter of commercial farmers’ rights), on charges of alleged terrorism. In protest, the MDC had temporarily “pulled out” of the government.

Against this backdrop, the reporter wasn’t taken in by the choreographed PR exercise of posing with the President. “People have really short memories,” he said. “How can they be so happy to pose with him?”

It’s clear that despite the MDC and Zanu PF co-operating somewhat, opinions are still deeply polarised. Some international people are pro-Mugabe, others are very opposed to him.

Afterwards, when we had been driven to show-grounds to watch a variety of school marching bands, I bumped into Lipman and asked him about his role in Zimbabwe.

The World Tourism Organisation is a stand-alone agency of the UN, and has a budget of around 20 million euro. It employs about 100 people, and its role is to facilitate, rather than implement tourism projects. It has no money for hard investment, it can only advise on the proposed investment.

I asked him about the state of Zimbabwe, and how the government of national unity was doing. “If you listened to the President today, he is clearly on a mission to sort things out in the country,” Lipman said.

I asked him about the recent arrest of Roy Bennett, and whether that was going to dampen the sense of national unity that Zimbabwe so desperately needs. “I hear a lot of things, but we must take the long term perspective,” Lipman said. “In the meantime, people are going to differ on how to sort things out, but I’m confident that Mugabe and [Prime Minister Morgan] Tsvangirai will find a way to sort things out.”

“I have met both leaders, and I have no reason to believe that Mugabe is not sincere about his willingness to sort out Zimbabwe,” Lipman stated. “Mugabe is human, articulate, realistic and very aware of the need for tourism to thrive. I have no doubt that Mugabe is a man of his word.”

I asked him about his agency’s work in Zimbabwe, and he said his agency’s priorities were the following: to clarify the method of measuring tourism statistics (much-needed); training people for the 2010 soccer World Cup taking place in South Africa in June next year; a 360 degree review of Victoria Falls; and liaising with the Minister of Environment about the prospect of a “green” tourism industry.

Would the agency’s suggestions be adopted by Zimbabwe’s government? “There is no pressure whatsoever on the government to adopt our proposals,” Lipman clarified.

I pressed him on whether the locals are managing in the depressed economy. “The bulk of people I see are happy,” Lipman said. “Just look outside on the field,” and he pointed to the school children marching bands on the field.

What about the massive numbers of unemployed people, standing on the streets of Harare? Were they happy? Would tourism deliver much needed employment to the unemployed? “Zimbabwe is not a unique situation,” Lipman remarked.

He went on to talk about Kazakhstan and the Maldives, and how each country has huge problems, just like Zimbabwe. I asked him about the 94% unemployment rate in Zimbabwe, a figure determined by the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a sister agency of Lipman’s employer. “Yes, that is unique,” he conceded. “That’s why tourism is so important, because it provides a quick flow of foreign cash currency to the locals working in the sector.”

Will the government of national unity last, in context of the MDC’s pull out? “Ask me if Barak Obama’s administration or the Labour government in Britain will last. I just don’t know. No-one knows these things.”

I then asked him about the three biggest reasons to visit Zimbabwe, and straight away he mentioned Victoria Falls, the very friendly people, and the great wildlife.

Mugabe's Speech: Part 1

Mugabe's Speech: Part 2

Mugabe's Speech: Part 2

Don't miss Ramsey's diaries throughout this week

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