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Zimbabwe tourism as the tourism minister himself sees it

Written by editor

Francis Nhema is the tourism and environment minister of Zimbabwe.

Francis Nhema is the tourism and environment minister of Zimbabwe. eTN recently caught up with him in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to discuss issues concerning his country’s questionably-beleaguered tourism industry.

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe was an unusual choice as host city of the recently-concluded Sanganai World Travel and Tourism Africa Fair, Zimbabwe’s annual tourism exhibition. When the minister was asked why Bulawayo was chosen to host the annual gathering, he said, “Bulawayo is called the ‘City of Kings and Queens’ for the simple reason that traditionally we are in an area where our well-known, famous kings resided in this place, number one. So it has a lot of cultural value to us. There’s a lot of communal understanding among the Zimbabwe people. Number two, Bulawayo is in the province where most of our tourist attractions are. The natural wonder of the world, Victoria Falls, is in this province. The Matopo National Park, which is the biggest park in Zimbabwe, is in this province… A lot of our tourist attractions are in this province, so it makes sense for us to hold it here so that people can then travel by bus, by car to all these tourist facilities. And also, lastly, because we have this beautiful structure that we can utilize. In Harare, if you remember last time, we were using a very small conference facility. But here we have all this [Zimbabwe International Trade Fair]ground [that] allows us to do we what want…”

Interestingly, Bulawayo, as it currently stands, only has three three-star hotels — Crest Churchill Hotel, Holiday Inn, and Rainbow Hotel. When pressed about the lack of infrastructure, Minister Nhema said, “I think also it’s important for this city to improve as they get more tourists, as they get these countries coming to Bulawayo, they have more reason why they would build more hotels.”

Minister Nhema confirmed that plans are underway to build more hotels in Bulawayo. “Already we have four hotels we are expecting to be built before 2010, and that is in the pipeline… You then distribute the wealth as you develop the infrastructure, and the communities here will also benefit from a show like this [the Sanganai].”

According to the minister, two local and two foreign companies are planning to build more hotels in Bulawayo. When asked if there is interest within the government to lure more foreign investors, Minister Nhema said, “We always do, but I’m one who believes that charity begins at home. I want the people here to start first and say we are proud of Zimbabwe, we are proud of Bulawayo and then the foreigners will come in because they understand that it’s a good place to invest and it’s a friendly environment.”

Where are the Chinese?
Zimbabwe has banked on inbound tourists from China, but conversations with hoteliers confirmed what other destinations have said about the Chinese market — that it just hasn’t met the hype that it has been made up to be. “Yes, I don’t think for the number of years that we’ve been involved with China, we’d expect the numbers to have tripled, no,” Minister Nhema said. “It’s a gradual process, it’s a new market, and also for the Chinese themselves, it means we have to do a lot of marketing in China for them to come. That’s the program that we have now.”

He added, “We have now opened an office in China… It’s a new market, and you must also understand, that with issues such as language barrier, with issues in food in terms of what they wanted, with certain things like we are asking, as a destination that we still have to fulfill with, that takes a process.”

Both South Koreans and Japanese tourists have, however, remained as strong markets for Zimbabwe. Does the minister foresee the kinds of problems it is facing with the Chinese market with the Japanese and South Korean markets? Minister Nhema said, “We are lucky because the Japanese and South Koreans have been trading us for a long time in terms of tourism. We have had Japanese companies, themselves, that have been situated in either Vic Falls Harare, which is a similar thing which will happen with the Chinese market. But it is too early to look for those great numbers for China now.”

According to the minister, the numbers for Japan and South Korea “are increasing, but it’s a steady increase.” As for China, he believes “it will come, and we believe with the number of buyers that are coming, and with the frequency, frequency in terms of airlines, the numbers will definitely come.”

Shitfting paradigm that is Zimbabwe tourism
On the state Zimbabwe’s tourism industry is currently in, Minister Nhema said, “We are always looking for better numbers, we are always looking for those numbers, and I can never say I am happy. I always say there is room for improvement. Last year and the year before I probably had 1 million. This year I have 1.5 [million], but I know, I can get to 5 million because we are always working to get more and more. Am I satisfied? Yeah, I am satisfied. Am I happy? No, I am not happy. I want more people, more tourists coming, not seasonal, but every day, every month; I want to be fully booked.”

As for his country’s current challenges in tourism, Minister Nhema said, “I think that we are having a paradigm shift. Originally, our clientele was a selected clientele; we were not looking at group tourism. We didn’t want mass tourism in this country. We always wanted 2, 3 people who pay high, and that was it. Now, we welcome them, and we say, what is the use in having 500 rooms when you say you don’t want more than 20 percent because there is too much noise, because there is too much movement, we want them to have peace and tranquility in the garden, we don’t want to be interrupted in the dining hall, so we are moving from that situation. We are now saying, hey, it’s important now that 10 people pass by as quickly as possible at breakfast time. But before, if we have one family in the whole hotel, it’s almost closed. That’s how we used to do it, but now we are changing. We are now saying, ‘look, let’s open it, let’s have more groups.’ Before, it wasn’t important to bring 10 people in the group; we’d make sure we limit(ed) it to 5 to 6 because that was our target number.”

The “shift” that the minister talks about has transcended to the kind of tourists Zimbabwe is now attracting. Gone were the days when Zimbabwe only wanted luxury tourists. “Before we did not allow budget tourists. We didn’t allow the backpackers, okay? We would not want them… But now we understand that we have to open it – let the students come, let the backpackers come, let it grow the numbers so that we have more people. So that’s the shift we have done.”

Climate change and food crisis
In eTN’s exclusive chat with Minister Nhema, he also addressed his country’s position on food shortage and climate change as two of the world’s current major issues. He said, “Climate change does affect us in a great deal. We have seen the patterns of our seasons changing. We have seen summer; not great summer as we used to know it. We have seen winter change; we have seen winter getting warm. We have seen second flowers that we used to see a second time is changing. And we have to adjust and adapt because this affects our season in terms of food, in terms of markets, in terms of the rainfall patterns… So, that affects not only us, but the region as a whole.”

According to him, Zimbabwe has “programs in terms of mitigation programs and adaptation.” He said, “Adaptation, merely saying, ‘how do we adapt to the new climate that we have, and if so, what should we put in place that we need?’ And that is what we are doing. We are now introducing certain crops that we didn’t have in certain areas, because we now see the shift in terms of weather, in terms of rainfall patterns… In terms of mitigation, we are now saying, how do we stop erosion; the entire situation that is created by the climate change? That, we now grow, in terms of plantations, new plants. In the plantations, we must realize what kind of fauna is acceptable to the dry region. And, how do we protect the erosion and degradation of our land?”

“Cash in US dollars only”
The message to tourists that Zimbabwe is currently a destination that does not accept credit cards, that its tourism facilities operate on a “cash in US dollars only” basis, that there is slow Internet connectivity, that cell phone coverage is erratic, and that there are power outages every now and then needs to be conveyed [to potential travelers]. What is the minister’s view on how this message is being disseminated? “We always do (provide information), through our offices, through the departments that we work with, that information is readily available,” Minister Nhema said. “I think it is important for you to understand that as you bring tourists, also you more or less are answering to the same problems that you had, because the availability of foreign currency, the availability of people coming in … brings … the benefits that can be improved… It’s like the chicken and the egg situation.”

To watch the interview via YouTube, click on the link below: