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Politics plunge Zimbabwe tourism deeper into uncertainty

Written by editor

As the Zimbabwean dollar plummets in value, banks across Zimbabwe show the same grim scene daily: people flocking to take out money, some even staying in line overnight just to get a hand on cash.

As the Zimbabwean dollar plummets in value, banks across Zimbabwe show the same grim scene daily: people flocking to take out money, some even staying in line overnight just to get a hand on cash.

But, that is not even the worst part of it. Just over a week ago, Zimbabweans were only allowed to withdraw Zim$20,000 per day. For tourists, this amount is basically worthless. At a hotel in Bulawayo, the bar was charging close to Zim$2 million for a small bottle of water. For a tourist paying in Zimbabwean dollar, this would mean he or she needs to stand in long lines for 20 consecutive days just to be able to afford that bottle of water. The only other way is if he or she has access to US dollars, then he or she can pay US$2.00.

Most tourism establishments currently do not take credit cards as a form of payment “because of the sanctions.” As a result, the only option is to have cash, in US dollars only. You read that right. Merchants here in Zimbabwe are slowly and surely trying to phase out their own currency and are now basically only transacting in US dollars exclusively. This begs the question: Where is the dollar coming from? When I asked locals there, they shrugged their shoulders and said, “I don’t know. They just ‘magically’ appear.”

Magic. Seemingly, it is truly the consequence of “magic” how the people have endured being in the stranglehold of a leadership gone awry. Children as young as three are all over the streets selling bananas that are close to being rotten, and women line up on the streets in a seemingly random fashion selling tomatoes and other goods, while many, and by this I mean in the hundreds, seem to be walking in aimless wander.

On the upside, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe has printed Zim$50,000 denominations and has upped the amount allowed for daily withdrawals at the same time. While this is good news for Zimbabweans, it still takes 10 days of standing in perpetual longs lines for a can of soda.

To make matters worse, some merchants are now using the astronomical black market conversion rate, instead of using the official Zimbabwe dollar to US dollar exchange rate (US$1.00 = Zim$326,286), and they are charging for their goods using the black market rate. So, for an average Zimbabwean buying a bottle’s worth could cost him or her Zim$1.9 million or US$2.00.

As this grim scenery repeats itself on a daily basis, the privileged and those who have jobs that guarantee a regular paycheck, go about their daily affairs in a stoic way. While hospitality workers gleefully greet you as you pass by them, along with it is a tinge of despair. A conversation with a worker at one of the tour companies in Victoria Falls expressed what many are afraid to say: that politics has failed Zimbabwe. The guide was so eager to please but was in such despair for the things that had gone awry with the tour group that I was with. He was tense, yet he still managed to muster a smile every time we saw each other. He was deeply apologetic and wanted so desperately to alleviate the situation, though no action of his could ever negate the fact that the current situation in Zimbabwe is really the root of all things that went wrong with the trip.

The currency situation is absolutely detrimental to Zimbabwe’s tourism industry, which is a major industry. A stay at The Elephant Lodge’s presidential suite (in Victoria Falls) costs US$549 per night. So, even if a US traveler brings in US$10,000, the maximum amount allowed for travelers to carry, that money would only last for a few days, almost half of the money for a week stay would be spent on just accommodation alone. What about shopping, tours and meals? Therefore, the only tourists that can come to Zimbabwe under the current political and economic climate are budget tourists, those who stay in two- to three-star hotels (US$100 to US$250) and those who spend very minimally.

The situation in Zimbabwe becomes more dire by the minute, as the “talks” among the three feuding political parties continue. Throughout the mess, however, one thing is certain: tourism in Zimbabwe must not end. It is unfortunate that the current situation may be dissuading tourists from visiting the politically-beleaguered nation. But, its tourism industry is operating normally in Bulawayo, Masvingo and Victoria Falls. To them, it is business as usual, even though they may be only operating to a 30 percent capacity. The official records might claim otherwise, but the numbers for Zimbabwe tourism have been steadily on the decline since the late ‘90s according to hoteliers in Victoria Falls, which is Zimbabwe’s tourism capital.

This can’t go on. Tourists should not be persuaded by the image that Zimbabwe is an “unsafe” destination to visit. Just like every destination, Zimbabwe is currently going through some challenges, but they are mostly political. As such, and, as in every tourist destination, there are cities to avoid. Harare might not be a place to visit right now, but that can’t be claimed about Victoria Falls and Bulawayo. Both of these destinations have an international airport, are safe and offer a wide range of tourist attractions.

Organizations tout tourism as a way to alleviate poverty. In Zimbabwe’s case, this couldn’t be truer. Tourism is perhaps the last ditch hope for survival for some Zimbabweans because it is their only way to a paycheck, to be able to put food on their tables. As it is, rural areas that rely on agriculture are starving because aid cannot get to them, and they “have no seeds” to plant, according to people, who understandably spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But what about safety? Travel warnings to Zimbabwe are highly over-rated. Contrary to Kenya after the election, there is no violence in Zimbabwe. For one obvious reason: nobody dares to cross Robert Mugabe’s stranglehold. The country is currently under such tight grip from the government that there were checkpoints in every 40-60 kilometer radius. But more importantly, Zimbabwe has not seen unrest because it is a nation of mostly educated people. “We will talk and talk and talk some more,” said one of my sources. “And so, the talks stall, then resume again.”

That said, push the envelope and defy the negative write-ups on Zimbabwe because not only will you be helping Zimbabweans keep their jobs, you will most likely have a trip you will remember for the rest of your life. Your safety is not threatened, as long as you steer clear of areas that are political “hotspots.” When you go, make sure to bring sufficient US dollars, call your hotel ahead and speak to the general manager to inquire about credit cards and/or to simply ask for their advice whether it is a good time to visit. It is in their best interest to tell you the truth, because they don’t want you showing up and having to deal with you if you happen to become disgruntled. Zimbabweans have a strong sense of hospitality and will go the extra mile to help you. As a country of mostly-educated individuals, especially in cities, tourism is viewed as a major source of income.

Contacting the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) for advice and registering with your respective embassies is also an option. ZTA will cater to your needs and will be your best tour guide.