Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Who holidays in Zimbabwe?

Posted by CM on September 2, 2008

The British government has just lifted its warning to its citizens to refrain from all but ‘essential’ travel to Zimbabwe. Election-associated violence has waned considerably in the last few weeks, even if the long-running political impasse and economic crisis drag on.

During the height of the election violence foreigners would have been well advised to avoid potentially troublesome areas and situations; to make sure they did not put themselves in situations in which they might be regarded as being political ‘combatants’ for one side or the other. But apart from taking reasonable precautions similar to those that would be advisable in any country holding heated elections, the truth is that British tourists minding their own business would not have been in any significant degree of danger.

Yet the travel warning was understandable  given the political tensions between the governments of the two countries, and the UK media’s portrayal of the country as a war zone (incorrect, perhaps deliberately) in addition to being an economic mess (true.)

On August 27 the BBC had a feature article entitled ‘Who goes on holiday to Zimbabwe?

It’s introduction was vintage UK media stuff: ….economy shattered, poverty endemic, political strife and repression widespread, once described as an “outpost of tyranny” by the US.

So why would anybody go there?

The story gave ‘…the magnificent Victoria Falls, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe and herds of roaming wildlife’ as part of the answer. It cites Zimbabwe Tourism Authority figures of more than 218,000 tourists from outside Africa entering the country last year, some 109,119 from Europe. These figures are said to show a gradual recovery in tourist arrivals, with a  claimed 42% rise in visitors from the Middle East.

As well as those attracted to Zimbabwe by history-in-the-making, the country’s wildlife still acts as a draw for hunters, those on safari and volunteers on working holidays.

The 2007 ZTA visitor numbers are compared to those of 1999, ‘before the government began its forced seizures of white-owned commercial farms in 2000.’ Then the ZTA recorded 597,000 overseas arrivals. But by 2005 the number of visitors from outside Africa was down to a low of 201,000.

Harare economist John Robertson is quoted as throwing doubt on the ZTA’s figures. “I don’t believe them,” he says, making the point that the government is “desperate to express what is happening in more upbeat terms. We have very, very under-occupied hotels, a very low degree of trade of tourist type items – those shops are barely functioning.”

I am in no position to say anything about the veracity or otherwise of the ZTA’s figures. Robertson bases his doubts on anecdotal evidence, but gives us nothing solid to indicate if his doubts are any more credible than the ZTA’s figures.

But then I stumbled on a completely different set of tourist arrivals figures to muddy things even more. The Southern Africa Trade Hub, a US-funded trade promotion body based in Botswana, has an article about tourism in the region, and about how operators are trying to position themselves to benefit from the expected influx of visitor for the 2010 soccer World Cup to be held in South Africa.

Highlights of Tourism’s Performance in 2007, South African Tourism, May 2008.

Tourist Arrivals by Country, 2007

Country, Arrivals, % change ‘06-’07
Angola                                       31,227                                                     10.2%
Botswana                                  818,403                                                       7.3%
Lesotho                                 2,170,074                                                     13.4%
Malawi                                      147,246                                                     18.2%
Mauritius                                    14,663                                                     14.7%
Mozambique                          1,084,157                                                     18.2%
Namibia                                    220,535                                                     -1.6%
Swaziland                               1,039,233                                                       4.8%
Zambia                                      183,056                                                      14.6%
Zimbabwe                                 964,027                                                      -1.7%

So here is an alternative source of information, although there is no detail provided about the source of the data. But here we have figures actually showing a significantly higher number of tourist arrivals to Zimbabwe for 2007 than the 208,000 of the ZTA. It must be kept in mind that we have been told the ZTA’s figures are for arrivals ‘from outside Africa’ while the South African figures are un-qualified.

Presumably the S. African figures are for all tourist arrivals without regard to origin. South Africans would be a significant proportion of those numbers, but I wonder if this could account for the huge difference (208,000 according to the ZTA, 964,000 according to the S. African figures.)

I cannot recall the details, but I seem to remember that a few years ago there was some acrimonius disagreement between the ZTA and a compiler of regional tourist figures (who could be the same one involved here) over how those figures were arrived at. I think at that time the ZTA was protesting that the regional body’s tourist figures for Zimbabwe were much lower than its own data showed.

But if anywhere near accurate, the latter figure for 2007 suggests a tourism sector that is not doing too shabbily compared to neighbouring countries that are not considered to be ‘in crisis,’ and that do not have the bad international ‘brand’ Zimbabwe does.

The picture that emerges from the two sets of figures and the counter-claims is too confusing to lead to any clear conclusion about just what Zimbabwe’s true tourism situation is.

Just another example of how the true overall situation in Zimbabwe depends on who you ask, and to some extent on your own biases and on which version of events who you are more inclined to believe.


One Response to “Who holidays in Zimbabwe?”

  1. satrade said

    Dear CM,

    Please note that the table and data that you are refering to is not of arrivals TO these countries, but of arrivals FROM these countries to South Africa. The article from which you lifted this data is in fact about South Africa’s efforts to promote tourism TO South Africa, in particular its efforts to draw more tourists FROM the region to South Africa. The articles is not about regional tourism, it is also not about how operators are trying to position themselves for 2010.

    Interest readers are welcome to read the original article in the 13th issue of Inside Southern African Trade (INSAT) which is available from http://www.satradehub.org.

    Best regards,

    The Editor,

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