Mzembi has a king-size tourism problem to solve (Part I)




Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister, Dr Walter Mzembi

Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister, Dr Walter Mzembi, took the media establishment by surprise recently when he appealed to the nation’s editors to assist him in his bid to boost international tourist arrivals in Zimbabwe.

By Geoffrey Nyarota

When he bounced back as Tourism Minister in September 2013, the country had just successfully hosted the United Nations World Tourism Organization General Assembly.

Mzembi’s re-appointment was on the back of the role he personally played in the successful organization of this World Cup of tourism which Zimbabwe hosted in the country’s premier tourist resort, Victoria Falls. The minister spoke then of his vision for Zimbabwe’s tourism industry, which he hinged on development of a largely untapped domestic tourism market.

“Going forward,” he said, “my vision is that one month holiday per family should not be a privilege but an incentive towards gross national happiness”

He spoke of plans to launch a “visit Zimbabwe package” for civil servants.

“Our people must find it easy to visit our places of interest,” he said. “Our locals cannot be left out”.

It sounded like a simple strategy to address the ongoing decline in the number of international tourist arrivals in Zimbabwe – replace them with home-grown tourists.

Given the prevailing economic hardship in Zimbabwe, three years down the road, Mzembi had somewhat modified this vision about the future of Zimbabwe’s once vibrant leisure industry. He had reverted to the international tourism market. But, so he said in October 2016, the proposed strategy was to now focus away from the Zimbabwe’s traditional major sources of international tourists. These were the Americas, particularly the United States, and the European Union

Dr Mzembi now underlined the need to diversify into other international markets, where there was obvious potential for growth. He pointed out that Zimbabwe’s tourism sector was targetted to grow into a $5 billion revenue sector by 2020 and contribute 15 percent to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.

“The growth of tourism is not where it was traditionally.” he said. “Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – that is where we are seeing growth (for) Zimbabwe tourism.

“We need to exploit the BRICS, but there are areas that we need to address in order to exploit the BRICS opportunity.”

In 2013 Dr Mzembi spoke of a need to work hand-in-hand with his colleagues in government in developing Zimbabwe’s tourism. In 2015 he spoke of issues that Zimbabwe needed to address in order to exploit the BRICS opportunity. According to the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority preliminary report to June 2016, Zimbabwe’s tourist arrivals from China alone grew 32 percent in the first half of 2016. China is a member of the BRICS

When he met the editors, Minister Mzembi openly appealed to them to assist his ministry in marketing Zimbabwe to the international community. He said that the country had failed to achieve this task because of its “spoiled image”. Speaking with candor, he stated that Zimbabwe’s bad governance record was responsible for his own recent loss of the contest for the UNWTO Secretary-General’s position.

He then appealed to the media to now help him in his bid to rebuild the image of Zimbabwe by publicizing that “there is no dictatorship” in the country. While Dr Mzembi hit the nail right on the head in terms of identifying issues of image and branding as being major obstacles to a successful tourism drive, his proposed solution was somewhat too simplistic. Zimbabwe does have a serious image problem, going back to the tumultuous political events surrounding government’s bid to redistribute land at the turn of the Century. This resulted in Zimbabwe being ostracized by the very international community upon which the country depended to sustain its previously vibrating tourist industry.

The greatest challenge facing Dr Mzembi now is that of fighting to dispel a perception of Zimbabwe as being unstable and unsafe both as a country and a tourist destination. This is a challenge, to address which he requires the assistance, not of local newspaper editors, but of his own colleagues in government in seeking to restore the country to its original status as a tourist haven.

While global tourism accounts for almost 10 percent of the world’s GDP, Zimbabwe is losing out in an industry which holds much promise for Africa’s future. While South Africa remains the continent’s leading tourist retreat, other favourite destinations have emerged. Zimbabwe is no longer one of them.

In order of popularity, the following is a list of the top ten most competitive tourist destinations in Africa now, basing on the 2015 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum: South Africa, Seychelles, Mauritius, Morocco, Namibia, Kenya, Tunisia, Egypt, Cape Verde and Botswana.
One of the Seven Wonders of the World, the mighty Victoria Falls, lies on the Zambezi River, Zimbabwe’s border with Zambia. The better view of the world’s largest waterfalls is gained from the Zimbabwean side. Yet more tourists now visit the Victoria Falls from Livingstone on the Zambian side, with day-trippers crossing the bridge to the Zimbabwean side for the better view, before retreating to spend valuable bed nights in Livingstone.

As if to add insult to injury, some American and European tourist packages to South Africa include Victoria Falls and, thereby, create the impression that Victoria Falls is part of South Africa. Some actually state this as fact.

There is a correlation between tourism and accessibility. Zimbabwe is now mostly reachable by flying through Johannesburg. Air Zimbabwe flies to only two external destinations, Johannesburg and Dar es Salaam.

Air Zimbabwe will be found somewhere at the bottom of the heap, when it comes to assessment of the best African airlines. Kenya Airways was voted Africa’s Leading Airline for 2016 at the World Travel Awards, effectively surpassing South African Airways. The South African carrier was nominated in the same category, together with Tunisair of Tunisia, Royal Air Maroc of Morocco and Egypt Air. It is no coincidence that Africa’s five leading airlines are the national carriers of countries that are listed among the Top Ten African tourist destinations.

The contribution of tourism to the economy appears not to be taken with commensurate seriousness by either the ruling Zanu-PF party or by government, except, perhaps with the notable exception of Transport and Infrastructure Development Minister, Joram Gumbo. He has taken measures to upgrade Victoria Falls and Bulawayo Airports to international standards.

But, if Mzembi’s campaign is successful, and plane-loads of tourists per day actually start arriving, then government will have to consider investment in construction of a brand new fully-fledged modern airport, in the same league as Johannesburg’s OR Tambo or Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta. The prospect of the current Harare International Airport structure being reconfigured in future to accommodate the double-deck, wide-body Airbus A380 jet airliner are perceptibly non-existent. The A380 is currently the world’s largest passenger airliner.

Meanwhile, Home Affairs Minister, Dr Ignatius Chombo, and Police Commissioner General, Dr Augustine Chihuri, will have to come to Dr Mzembi’s party. Initially, they will have to drastically reduce the number of irksome road blocks on Zimbabwe’s roads. Then they will have to prevail on individual police officers to adopt a more professional and civil demeanour when handling members of the public, including tourists. Finally, Dr Chihuri will somehow have to prevail upon his officers to quench their distasteful appetite for taking bribes.

Chief Executive Officer Dr Karikoga Kaseke’s Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) appears to focus mainly on strategies that attract internal and regional tourists. The showpieces of his tourism recovery programme, the much flaunted Miss Zimbabwe beauty pageant and the Harare International Carnival, have no clearly discernible potential for bringing in an increased number of tourists into the country, apart from the performers from Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica whose visit is sponsored by the ZTA itself, with the assistance of airlines and the hotels, according to Dr Kaseke.

“They are out of their minds,” proclaimed South African raunchy entertainer, Zodwa Wabantu, while referring to the two top ZTA executives, Dr Kaseke and corporate affairs manager, Sugar Chagonda.

According to press reports, the ZTA apparently invited Wabantu to participate in this year’s edition of the Harare International Carnival, knowing that the major attraction of her act was to perform without wearing any underwear. Chagonda then pronounced that Wabantu must compromise on her dress code in order not to offend the sensibilities of chiefs and other traditional leaders claimed by him to be likely to grace the festival with their presence.

Justifying the invitation of Wabantu to be the star attraction on the so-called Samba Night on 6 September, Chagonda said that the artist was popular in the region and “through her we want to target regional tourists”.

How the frolicking of one scantily dressed young South African damsel on 6 September, before a gathering of decent Harare folk, many no doubt shocked, has potential to induce visitors from Windhoek, Maputo or Blantyre to flock to Victoria Falls thereafter, the good Mr Chagonda did not elaborate.

I spoke to Dr Kaseke, though, and queried the real value of Wabantu in attracting regional tourists to Zimbabwe. Contradicting Chagonda, he denied that the ZTA had invited the South African performer, in the first place. He said that it was the public, instead, that had invited her. So popular was she throughout the region that 50 000 visitors were expected in Harare from South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique, the majority travelling by road. Dr Kaseke said 30 000 visitors from the region had attended the 2016 carnival. An increase to 50 000 this year was a reasonable projection, he said.

“They have already started arriving,” Dr Kaseke said. “It is Zimbabweans who have suggested that we bring in Zodwa. Those who don’t like her should accept diversity, which is the theme of the carnival; that is political, cultural and historical diversity. Our carnival is the biggest in the region.”

Asked to comment on Dr Mzembi’s appeal to the Harare editors for assistance in marketing Zimbabwe’s tourism, Dr Kaseke said, while ZTA was the legal tourism marketing arm of government the minister was free to call on anyone to assist the ministry. He said he could not comment on the minister’s meeting with the journalists.

“I cannot comment on that meeting,” Dr Kaseke said. “I was not part of it. I am hearing about if for the first time from you.”

That being the case, after appealing to the editors, it appears logical that Dr Mzembi must now focus his attention on his Cabinet colleagues. Thereafter he must transfer that attention directly to State House itself. The deeds of First Lady Grace Mugabe, and her two sons, Robert Junior and Bellarmy Chatunga in Johannesburg and elsewhere internationally over the past few months must have effectively served to undo the good work that Dr Mzembi believes he has been doing to market Zimbabwe as an attractive tourist destination once more.

After reading about Dr Mzembi’s appeal to the editors, I took the liberty to speak to some of Zimbabwe’s former top journalists, some of them now domiciled in the Diaspora. Some decried what they viewed as the lackluster approach on the part of both the Ministry of Tourism and, especially, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, in marketing Zimbabwe, given the challenges of image and the need for professional marketing strategies.

Ray Choto, who formerly worked on Horizon Magazine and The Standard and who is now with the Voice of America, Studio 7, in Washington DC, said: “Marketing itself well is what South Africa is doing in the Diaspora. Zimbabwe is doing zero. Every South African embassy has a tourism department. They don’t have a tourism attaché at the Zimbabwe mission here in Washington. This is one of the issues discussed when Mzembi was here in June.

“Everything concerning business and investment is done by the economic and political attaché.”

(To be continued)