Tourism: Zimbabwe needs an epiphany

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OUR inability to perceive opportunities right in our faces is spectacular, failure to maximise the same becomes unsurprising. Zimbabwe’s tourism appeal is nowhere closer to where it was before.
The United Nations World Trade Organisation (UNWTO) general assembly of August 2013 gave us an opportunity for a reset, but sadly we appear to be focusing on crumbs, when there is real food ready for the taking. We seem to walk with eyes wide shut, oblivious of the low hanging fruits eager to pull us out of the economic abyss we find ourselves in, instead focusing on the complicated whose outcome we can only speculate.
A task-force is in place we are told, ready to concoct a package that shall incentivise civil servants to spur the growth of domestic tourism. Further we also hear that the mission is already complete in turning the country’s fortunes as regards international tourists, prompting the drive to focus on the domestic market. This, in my view is unfortunate – we are turning attention away from where it should be. I pray for an epiphany, that our eyes are open so we can perceive and exploit this opportunity that is right in our faces while it exits!
Zimbabwe has a real potential to become a tourism powerhouse in the region. Drivers of tourism resonate well with the country’s chosen path of development, while at the same time speaking to key fundamentals in improving investor confidence in the country. Empirical evidence supports its relative competitiveness in efficiently utilising scarce resources compared to sectors that have been famed as the messiahs in the quest to remedy Zimbabwe’s economic challenges. I hold the view that there is a compelling case to relook our efforts in promoting tourism with the aim of putting it forward as a cornerstone in addressing the nation’s development needs.
Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa spoke glowingly about the potential of tourism in his 2014 budget presentation, ZimAsset asserts the same while a National Tourism Policy due to be launched any time now will hopefully provide concrete strategies to realise this potential. Meanwhile, the fact remains that there appears to be a deficiency of the zeal necessary to take the industry to the next level.
For tourism minister Walter Mzembi, successfully hosting the UNWTO Assembly is his legacy. He cannot be faulted as a point man, yet the assembly only set a basis upon which we have to spring from as a nation. Conditions have fortunately connived to favour us for once; the ducks are clearly in a row and require only our ingenuity to convert this potential to bankable income.Advertisement

For starters, the perception of Zimbabwe as a tourist destination has improved significantly as evidenced by the 17 percent jump in 2013 international arrivals. Key driving factors were the peace and tranquillity that characterised the referendum and general elections that took place this year, underpinned later on by the success in hosting of the UNWTO assembly.
This has also happened at an opportune time when momentum for growth in tourism is with developing nations, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) in particular. Between 2008 and 2009, tourist arrivals in the region increased by 4.4 percent while arrivals worldwide dropped by 3.8 percent. Between 2009 and 2010, tourist arrivals to SSA increased by eight percent; the world average was 6.6 percent. Africa was the only region whose tourism sector grew during the world economic crisis.
This trend is set to continue and should intensify with expanding incomes especially in Africa. Zimbabwe has the opportunity to maximise its benefit by transforming to become the preferred destination relative to its peers.
Empirical evidence shows tourism to be an efficient employer of scarce capital. A study in Zambia by the Natural Resources Consultative Forum (Hamilton and others, 2007) found out that a $ 0.25million investment in tourism generates 182 full-time formal jobs (direct and indirect), which is nearly 40 percent more than what the same investment yields in agriculture and over 50 percent more than in mining. Now these three happen to be the pillars upon which the Zimbabwean economy is built, yet evidence shows that if job creation is the objective, it is best achieved through allocating more resources to tourism.
To add to that, tourism compares favourably in terms of opportunities for small and medium enterprises development, career advancement and lifelong learning potential compared to the other two. I believe these traits alone make a compelling case for increasing the prominence of tourism on the national agenda.
Zimbabwe’s credentials as an investment destination can do with a bit of reforms to appease the requirements of investors. Tourism can certainly play a central role in accelerating reforms as has been witnessed in a number of countries worldwide.
In Cape Verde for instance, tourism took off when the banking sector was reformed, when the Escudo (Cape Verde currency) was pegged to the Euro coupled with the creation of an attractive package of investment incentives (Twining-Ward 2010b). Rwanda, on the other hand, significantly improved its “doing business” indicators on the back of the desire to increase gorilla tourism.
This has been vital in transforming perceptions about the country from being a genocidal war-torn country, to a strong growing economy awash with investment opportunities. Candid efforts to promote tourism in Zimbabwe will invariably call for some policy reforms which will by and large be positive for the country and can aid in attracting investment in other sectors.
Zimbabwe hosted the 6th All Africa Games in 1995 and the legacy has been a number of huge sporting facilities some of which have unfortunately earned the ‘white elephants’ status. South Africa’s $2.6 billion investment in upgrading airports and sports facilities ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup is yet another good example of what tourism can trigger in terms of infrastructure development.
The Zimbabwe government has strong desires to undertake significant infrastructure projects especially in the energy, irrigation and road sectors. If such projects were to be implemented prioritising the appeal of the nation as a tourist destination; the tourism’s multiplier effect can significantly improve the economic return of such projects. Further, there is evidence of tour operators, especially hoteliers, reaching out to their surrounding communities to improve the health and welfare of their workers and to ensure that local people prize the benefits that tourists can bring them.
The industry has proven capability of empowering women, young people, and marginalised groups in societies where it thrives. This clearly sounds like a line borrowed from the Zimbabwean government policy documents as these are the same groups targeted for emancipation by the country’s empowerment laws.
A 2010 study by UNWTO and United Nations Women established that in Africa 31 percent of employees in the hotel and restaurant sector were women, compared to 21 percent in other sectors. Empowering women to participate in economic development at all levels and in all sectors is essential to build strong and stable economies as well as just societies (UNIFEM and UN Global Compact 2010). Zimbabwe aspires to build such an economy and tourism’s developmental potential is clearly in sync with realities of our time.
Lastly, tourism shows particular promise in creating demand for non-tourism goods and services such as transport, fuels, retailing, finance, real estate, agriculture, and communications. Research by the World Travel and Tourism Council (2011) shows that tourism can generate twice as much from indirect spending on non-tourism goods and services as well as from induced supply chain benefits than from direct tourist spending. Zimbabwe is currently struggling in its efforts to stimulate domestic demand for the few products that its depleted industry is producing. Focus on tourism thus has demonstrable ability to offer a helping hand in plugging that gap.
However, all these benefits will not accrue without pain. My prayer for an epiphany is premised upon the realisation of the myriad of challenges that need to be overcome before Zimbabwe is firmly on the route to being a tourist haven. We have become far too expensive as a nation. The product we offer is clearly not value for money, tourists who are visiting us today have either not done their homework well or like us so much that they would like to donate some of their wealth to us.
The industry just needs to reform and become competitive. If it makes sense to discount our offering to the civil servant, why not extend the same package to the international tourist and unlock 90 percent of the plusses enumerated above.
The cost of travel is yet another big huddle to negotiate. I have no idea why Harare is not the Southern Africa hub in as far as air travel is concerned. Is the challenge still tied to sanctions or we have simply not thought through what we offer in light of the opportunity at hand. If we make a conscious decision to be the cheapest as regards airport taxes, will that not change anything? The list is endless, but all it requires is that we open our eyes as a people and seek to be the most competitive tourist destination in our part of the world and a big portion of our challenges will be on the way to being solved.