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Wednesday, 14 March, 2001, 18:32 GMT
Sun sets on Zimbabwe tourism
Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls: No longer a preferred destination
By Lewis Machipisa in Harare

Zimbabwe was expected to cash in on the once-in-a-life-time 21 June solar eclipse, which will be visible in much of the country.

But tourists have moved en bloc to neighbouring Zambia - not as developed as the Zimbabwean side of the border, but considered more peaceful.

Invasions of commercial farms by war veterans and the violence that ensued in the run-up to last year's parliamentary elections, have put Zimbabwe on the list of unsafe destination for visitors.

Farm occupation in 2000
Farm occupations have scared tourists away
Fuel and foreign currency shortages have further undermined the tourism sector.

At least 30 opposition supporters and eight white commercial farmers have been murdered by suspected independence war veterans who have forcefully occupied more than 1,600 farms.

Earlier this year, a group of ex-combatants descended on the resort town of Victoria Falls, home to the majestic falls, where they harassed tourists.

These attacks have been given extensive international media coverage. And the effects are showing.

Job losses

Of the 1.4 million tourists in 1999, industry figures say less than a quarter visited Zimbabwe last year. By December, less than 20% of hotel rooms had been occupied.

A man polishes his stone sculptures
Those who rely on the tourist trade are having are hard time
The industry, which had enjoyed growth of 20 to 40% since the late 1980s, has seen occupancies going below break-even levels.

As the hard times roll, some floors at the five star world-acclaimed Sheraton Hotel have been closed and workers laid off.

To date, about 5,000 jobs have been lost and more than 100 tour operators have closed down, while hotel groups have suspended expansion programmes.

''Very few tourists are visiting. Those who come are mostly bitter and complain about the political crisis in the country,'' says a worker at A'Zambezi River Hotel in Victoria Falls.

Harare airport
International airlines are pulling out of Harare
''Although they say they have had a memorable time in Zimbabwe, they leave with a promise of never to return until the situation improves."

Recently published results of operations and profitability of one of the country's major hotel groups, the Rainbow Tourism Group (RTG), are indicative of the harsh reality that Zimbabwean tourism firms are facing.

The hotel and tour group experienced a turnover decline of 14% which meant an operating loss of 104 million Zimbabwe dollars ($1.9m).

Passenger crisis

Prospects for the revival of the tourism industry depend on the way the government tackles the fundamental issues affecting the country.

A number of measures have to be taken into consideration, such as granting the tourism industry export status, improving the supply of fuel and tackling the violence on farms.

Zimbabwe's tourism sector contributes up to 6% of the country's GDP and employs some 200,000 people. It also generates $400m yearly in foreign currency earnings.

The country has already lost the construction of a multi-million dollar resort complex to Zambia as well as other developments planned for Victoria Falls.

Elephant in Zimbabwe
Tourism was once Zimbabwe's fastest growing sector
The decline in foreign visitors has also affected the airlines, and according to a British Airways official business has dropped dramatically.

''The economy has worked very much against those in Harare, while the political climate has also affected those who want to travel there," Alan Burnett, British Airway's regional manager for Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands told a local private weekly.

BA say they have no plans to pull out of Zimbabwe, and are confident that a problem can be resolved over the government refusing to allow them to remit earnings to the UK.

Australia's Quantas and Germany's Lufthansa have already left Zimbabwe. Austrian Airlines will do so on 14 March.

And just as tourists shun Zimbabwe, thousands of its nationals are leaving the country in droves for greener pastures overseas.

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See also:

09 Mar 01 | Africa
02 Mar 01 | Africa
26 Oct 00 | Africa
19 Feb 01 | Africa
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