by Rejoice Ngwenya,
Forty years of continuous singular misgovernance has literally decimated our tourism industry. Zimbabwe now resembles a bad national soccer team with a new kit. All glitz and no substance. Despite despicable racist policies and oppressive discrimination, you have to hand it over to Ian Smith and his team.
Their domestic tourism policies were nothing short of impeccable. I remember back then those famous payoff lines: “Welcome to Scenic Selukwe.” My favourite: “Rhodesia is Super, Especially Bulawayo.” For Pete’s sake even Triangle sugar estates, Cashel valley tea fields, Rhodesia Railways and panoramic wheat fields of Marandelas were a tourist attraction!
I mean just about every corner of our country had something to offer. Kyle Dam. Zimbabwe Ruins. Victoria Falls. Gonarezhou. Khami Ruins. Sinoia Caves, Kariba Dam. In 1980, thousands of foreigners wanted to come and experience the famed magic of Zimbabwe’s tourist paradise: Matopo Hills. Nyanga. Hwange National Parks. Big budget films like ‘The Grass is Singing’ and ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ added their weight to the country’s tourist magnet.
The Central Film Laboratories in Highlands, Harare, became the center for Africa’s post-production processes. Back then, big advertisers like Michael Hogg and Barker McCormick spent big bucks on holiday promotions as backpackers and overland trucks inundated our narrow highways and byways. I cannot recall how many cabaret shows I attended created by the eccentric Allan Riddell around Zimbabwe’s tourist attractions. Not to mention beauty pageants and international music shows. Zimbabwe was the first port of call for water rafting and big game hunting.
It’s all dead now. Erie silence.
The billion-dollar question is what went wrong? There are those who advance the theory of dictatorship, human rights violations and country risk. True but not conclusive. Some of the biggest crowd pullers in Africa back then were Egypt and Kenya whose ‘democracies’ were not exactly models of excellence. Jomo Kenyatta and his handpicked successor, Daniel arap Moi were dictators in the classic sense of the word.
Kenya had very little resources other than Maasai Mara, Lake Nakuru, Mt. Kenya and the white sand beaches of Mombasa, yet that country chocked with tourists. Hundreds of Zimbabweans attended Utalii College – a conveyor belt of hospitality excellence based in Nairobi. All this despite Kenya’s acclaimed ‘bad politics’. Islamic fundamentalism has not dissuaded millions of visitors from the mysterious Egyptian Pyramids.
Here is my take. Both our government and the hospitality sector shoot themselves at will. Our government is so desperate for revenue that it taxes the hospitality industry to death. Every institution in government wants a piece of the cake, so much that hospitality investors are left with no choice but to pass the savage costs to tourists, guests and patrons.
What this then means dollar for dollar, a tourist gets better value for money in South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya than Zimbabwe. Every time I fly KQ or ET via Lusaka, three quarters of the plane disembarks in Zambia. Moreover, we could not compete with Kilimanjaro or Mara on any day. Our pricing structure is moronic.
I have seen in Zimbabwe ‘bare rooms’ priced at US$100 per night, I mean 3-star hotel rooms. If you added full board, your bill escalates to US$160. Now you tell me what sort of meal costs US$30? This culture of predatory culinary madness also experienced at take away restaurants.
A miserly serving of half-dried chips and tiny ‘quarter’ chicken demands about US$5 in Harare. Even if you ventured into indigenous food, your bill, add a tiny soft drink bottle, would be more than US$10. With that sort of cash, I would eat myself to the cemetery in Dar es Salaam.
Apart from thrifty food servings, some lodges do not bother with toiletry – even if you parted with US50. If I paid a lodge that much in Cape Town, I would be paralysed with luxury, even next to the VA Waterfront. Let me put it more succinctly – most Zimbabwean lodges are brothels masquerading as places of hospitality. You will be lucky if you sleep in a bed with fresh sheets. Every time I go to Nyanga hotels, I encounter hundreds of empty rooms despite so-called ‘promotions’.
Kenyans and Tanzanians beat us easily with service. Our waiters and front office staff are so underpaid that the misery shows on their faces. I do not know how much tip one can give away after being ‘murdered’ by a restaurant or hotel bill. From Soweto to Rosebank, eating and drinking houses crowded with happy patrons. Competitive pricing, food quality and service are the three magical words.
So what solution would I prescribe? Black Zimbabweans have no ‘eating out’ culture perhaps because of our low disposable incomes. However, when tourism authorities and government decide on domestic promotions, they should embark on Black Friday-type price cuts across the board. It is better they use our local money to cover non-US$ costs.
Moreover, please abolish those predatory taxes. Imagine how much I would need to fill up my 2-litre SUV to Victoria Falls and back. Never mind pre-travel car service, in transit meals, accommodation and site visits – with family. Extortion taxing and mercenary pricing defeat all effort in domestic tourism promotion. Moreover, the US$ configured pricing is nothing but a repellent.
I know Tendai Biti may disagree with Mthuli Ncube but the need for our own independent, strong currency is urgent. Therefore, instead of dreaming of exclusive dollarisation like Steve Hanke, Zimbabwe should focus on getting its macro-economic and monetary fundamentals right. A shared national vision on tourism promotion is a key component in our bid to compete against other African countries.
With a Victoria Falls, a Zimbabwe Ruins, a Matopo, a Hwange National Parks. Add an amazing all year round sunny climate and a reasonably educated citizenry – I mean, who can struggle to sell such a tourist destination? Zimbabweans, of course. For me, it is a case of “Africa is Super, Especially Zimbabwe!”