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Making the most of tourism advantage

Article by Kevin Tutani

ACCORDING to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), in 2022 there were 963 million international tourists. This was a strong improvement since the disruption of COVID-19. However, it remains 34% below 2019 numbers of 1.4 billion (1.465 billion to be precise). International tourism receipts amounted to, US$1.2 trillion. Growth will likely surpass pre-covid performance, within the next two years. The top international tourist destinations were France, Spain and the United States with 79.4 million, 71.7 million and 50.9 million international visitors, respectively.

Africa received only 3% of the travellers, with a mere 46.5 million visitors. The greatest arrivals were recorded in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa with 11.7 million, 11 million, 6.3 million and 5.7 million, respectively. It is also noteworthy to outline that South Africa regularly outperforms Tunisia, although it has struggled to recover since the pandemic. For example, in 2019 it was the third-most visited (in Africa) and had 10.2 million international tourists. This dissection is crucial because the country is closely connected to Zimbabwe and its fate can have a bearing on its neighbour as well. Zimbabwe is typically the sixth-most-visited country on the continent, taking its place after Algeria, which surpasses it by about one hundred thousand visitors, each year. The country had just over 1 million visitors in 2022 (1 043 781). This was also much below the pre-pandemic level of 2.3 million, in 2019. The fact that Zimbabwe has secured a place in the top six most visited countries, with its various major challenges, conveys clearly that tourism is one of the country’s competitive advantages. This article examines the state of the local tourism sector, interprets available data and provides suggestions for growth.

Tourism is recognized as the third-largest sector of Zimbabwe’s economy, after mining and agriculture. Its importance to the nation’s economy is monumental. The country has several tourist destinations, located in almost every region of the country. This should serve as an advantage as the country offers diverse experiences through these. The destinations include Victoria Falls, Kariba, the Great Zimbabwe Monument, Eastern Highlands, Gonarezhou, Matopos and other national parks and museums. The sunny weather, wildlife and hospitable nature of the people are also a major attraction, which particularly draws tourists from the northern hemisphere.

According to the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority’s (ZTA), “Tourism and Trends Statistics Report”, local tourism sector receipts amounted to US$911 million, in 2022. This is far below the US$1.2 billion realized in 2019. The 1 043 781 international tourist arrivals comprised 693 281 visitors from within Africa and only 350 500 travellers from overseas. Of the 350 500 exotic travellers, most were from North America (91 282), the UK and Europe (174 544), alongside Australia and New Zealand (18 330). In total, tourists from “the West” made up 81% of Zimbabwe’s overseas tourist arrivals, or 284 156, out of the 350 500.

The 1 million tourists who visited Zimbabwe travelled for various reasons, which include; visiting friends and relatives (464 788), transiting to other countries (289 617), business (156 104), leisure (82 022), shopping (24 701), education (18 267) and also unspecified reasons (8 282). It is also crucial to state that Zimbabwe’s tourism sector is in recovery, although it remains among the top African destinations, even now. The sector is still striving to reach the successes realized in previous decades. In 1999, for example, the country received 2 090 407 international visitors. These are robust numbers because of the time in which they were realized and also due to the fact that Zimbabwe had a very shallow diaspora presence at that time. If there were to be no break in growth, arising from various disruptions, it is fair to suggest that the country would have been receiving around 4 million purely foreign visitors, coupled with the diaspora which would provide an additional 1 million to the foreign arrivals. This would imply that tourism receipts would have been US$5 billion or more, since the international arrivals would be five times more than those recorded in 2022, which had US$911 million in tourism receipts, from 1 million tourists.

There is also domestic (local) tourism in Zimbabwe and in keeping with other countries, it outperforms international tourism. It should also suffice to emphasize that domestic tourism is not a part of the 1 043 781 international arrivals. The little data which is available can be used to indicate the difference in expenditures and numbers between international and domestic tourism. The National Park entry statistics of 2022, for example, show that local tourists who paid for entry into national parks (468 694) were more than twice the number of foreign tourists (215 236). The park entry figures also show that the most famous National Parks are within Victoria Falls, which had 388 677 entries out of the 683 930 total entries into the more than 20 parks dotted around the country.

Entries into the country’s 13 National Museums and Monuments, which are accounted for separately from the parks, amounted to 162 902, in 2022. Out of the 162 902 visitors to the museums and monuments, only 5 478 were foreigners, with the overwhelming majority being locals. The Great Zimbabwe Monument was the most visited, with 45 359 locals and only 2 707 foreigners touring it. These statistics can be startling, especially for locals who hold the Monuments in high esteem. Clearly, the Monuments will need more marketing to attract international tourists.

The country’s total hotel room numbers are only a modest 7 168. Registered lodges, which provide both a supporting and competing role to the hotels, offer an additional 5 047 rooms, nationally. At these levels, it can prove difficult for the country to host major tourist-attracting events such as the Africa Cup of Nations Sports Tournament, international conventions, etc. It should be shrewd to keep in mind that, the 12 212 available rooms (7 168 + 5047) are not of the same grading. Only a very few of the rooms belong to five-star-graded hospitality outlets. The resurgence of more tourist visits, after the covid pandemic and the target of the Ministry of Tourism, to realize a US$5 billion tourism sector by 2025, indicate that the country needs more room capacity, at the earliest. The Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe (HAZ) President, Farai Chimba, concurs and insists that the country needs an additional 20 000 rooms by 2030.

The ZTA report clearly shows that Zimbabwe depends largely on overseas tourists from “the West”, ahead of those from Asia. Visitors from Asia make up only, 13.5% (47 453) of total overseas arrivals. This is in spite of the fact that Asia is the most populated and has a growing middle-class, which is instead, increasing its visits within its own region (from one country to another) and to the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas. It would also not be surprising if further analysis reveals that most visitors from the Asian region are travelling to Zimbabwe for business, instead of leisure, since the economic ties with that region are growing, owing to Zimbabwe’s blacklisting by the West, through sanctions.

The numbers show that Zimbabwe needs to regularise its relationship with the West, in order to grow visitors from that region. In this regard, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade should capacitate all influential persons in government and the ruling party, so that their bilateral relationship with the West is sanitary.

The fact that Zimbabwe realized more than 2 million visitors, as far back as 1999, also shows that the nation can attract a minimum of 5 million visitors, by 2030, if the right marketing and political manoeuvres are employed. This means that the vision of a US$5 billion tourism industry is within reach, although not likely to be achieved by 2025.

Additionally, since there are more business tourists (156 104) than those seeking leisure (82 022), the country needs a more flexible business visa, when compared to the leisure visa. Current records show that business visas are valid for only 30 days whilst leisure visas permit 90 days stay, in the country. Regularising this discrepancy would be beneficial.

The number of tourists visiting friends and relatives (464 788) also calls for civil local politics and sound relationships between the government and citizens. This is because during such visits, political matters will typically be discussed and the negative or favourable news arising from the interactions, will be spread around the world, making up that which brand’s Zimbabwe, determining how it is perceived by the world.

The 289 617 transiting and 24 701 shopping tourists highlight the importance of placing more commercial activity at the major ports of entry and along the highways branching from them. Strengthening the educational sector would also add to the 18 267 learners crossing into Zim.

In order to improve tourist flows to other areas, apart from Victoria Falls, alternative tourist destinations need to be marketed more passionately, domestically and internationally. Placing monuments such as the Great Zimbabwe and other destinations in local currency (Zimbabwe dollars), for example, goes a long way to make the destinations more visible and appealing. As international tourists return to their homelands with Zimbabwe dollars which they will keep as memorabilia, that will also provide further marketing of destination Zimbabwe. However, this would work if the currency and macro economy are stable. Thus, the RBZ should be fully conversant that its performance has such nuanced influences on the local tourism sector. A stable domestic currency would also spill into greater disposable incomes for local tourists.

Diplomatic missions should be assigned the task of marketing Zimbabwe and its resorts in the countries where they have been dispatched. This would entail having a website which represents the country’s Foreign Affairs and highlights the different local destinations, as well. Their marketing should be concentrated in the West, which is the source of the most overseas tourists and should include even the inexpensive social media marketing. Moreover, the ambassadors’ performance should be evaluated based on the growth of tourists from their regions. After all, this is what their task entails. The marketing should also include Asia and the rest of the world. In Africa, diplomatic missions may employ the same efforts to attract tourists from South Africa, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, who provide the most regional visits to Zimbabwe.

Expanding and perfecting the country’s infrastructure and public services will also attract more arrivals, lengthen stays, increase tourist spending and connect more tourists to the various local destinations. World-class roads, internet connectivity, airports, and reliable water and electricity supply, can even result in more relocations from overseas, with foreigners electing to be Zimbabwean citizens.

Improving the country’s agricultural activity will also lead to the beautification of Zimbabwe’s landscape and result in more domestic and international tourists visiting hospitality resorts in the farming areas (agro-tourism). To add to that, massive tree plantings across the breadth of Zimbabwe would also enhance the local climate and aesthetic. If the Ministry of Environment could legislate that (tree plantings), it would be commendable, timely and beneficial.

Innovativeness on the part of the government and hotels will also be profitable. For instance, drawing global artists and influencers to visit resorts during the first quarter of the year, when business is usually low, can attract more visitors. The global influencers can be requested to participate on a philanthropic basis, with event ticket sales going to support conservation, anti-poaching activities and child-headed families, for example. Bundling charity with show business and greater tourist visits would be suitable and progressive for a country of Zimbabwe’s calibre.

Adding more activities at other locations apart from Victoria Falls would be judicious. In this regard, ZTA or the private sector may establish a theme park, hot air balloons, aquarium, steam train safari, children’s play area, pool or water slides next to the sites. These will act as additional attractions which draw more visitors. Sponsoring major events such as international golf tournaments, jewellery, art, bird, fishing or cultural festivals, can also draw attention from the right quality of tourists.

All local trade and industry bodies should be encouraged to be affiliated with international professional associations in their field. Further, they should lobby for their groups’ international meetings and conventions to be held in Zimbabwe, with the Ministry of Tourism offering slight subsidies, where possible. This will enhance the country’s visibility and attract more business travellers.

If the major cities and Central Business Districts (CBDs) were pristine, they would also attract more traffic from the major tourist destinations. Thousands of tourists would be willing to divert into the local cities and witness everyday Zimbabwean life. That would mean better occupancy for hotels in the city centres. Unfortunately, the present lack of civility, cleanliness and safety, means that tourists will continue to avoid those areas. Therefore, the Ministry of Tourism should collaborate with the Local Government Ministry to ensure that order is restored.

Five-year multi-entry visas for tourists may also be sold at US$150 each. This price is in line with international benchmarks and would encourage more visits, whilst generating revenue for the government. The US charges US$160 for a similar visa, whilst Egypt charges a staggering US$700, although tourism experts there, opine that its price deters arrivals.

ZTA should also strive for tourists from China and Taiwan to be granted visas upon arrival, instead of having to apply for eVisas.

Additionally, foreign passport holders arriving at each airport should be given pamphlets which showcase Zimbabwe’s various tourist resorts and free cell phone sim cards, with airtime and data. This would enhance the marketing of alternative tourist destinations in the country. With 1 million visitors, for example; $1 airtime, 1 gigabyte of data and a pamphlet could cost just US$3 each, or US$3 million, in total (1 million x $3). The benefits could however flow into tens or hundreds of millions in tourist revenues.

Establishing some Zimbabwean restaurants, supermarkets or other authentic brands in the centre of source markets, will add to the visibility of the country and also attract the Zimbabwean diaspora as customers.

Most importantly, Zimbabwe will need to court more tourists as South Africa assumes the G20 presidency in 2025. The more than 60 meetings held by the bloc, each year, will draw millions of more travellers to the region. Having delegates re-route from South Africa or extend their stay to include Zimbabwe will serve great good for the local tourism sector and the economy at large.

Kevin Tutani is a political economy analyst, he can be contacted at tutanikevin@gmail.com

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