By Lucy Rodgers
BBC News Magazine
The Foreign Office warns against all but essential travel to Zimbabwe, but according to the country's tourism chiefs, thousands of people from overseas still head there every year. So who are Zimbabwe's tourists and why do they go?
With its economy shattered, poverty endemic and political strife and repression widespread, the state once described as an "outpost of tyranny" by the US is probably not at the top of everyone's holiday destination list.
But Zimbabwe boasts one of the natural wonders of the world in the magnificent Victoria Falls, the ruins of Great Zimbabwe and herds of roaming wildlife, and some hardy tourists are still being drawn across its borders.
Victoria Falls - 100m-deep gorge
Zambezi River - it flows 2,574km (1,544 miles)
Great Zimbabwe - most extensive ruins in sub-Saharan Africa
Wildlife reserves, including Hwange National Park and Matopos National Park
According to the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, more than 218,000 tourists from outside Africa entered the country last year, some 109,119 from Europe.
One of those who included the country in their travel itinerary was Adrian Wright, originally from Hampshire, who wanted to witness the elections earlier this year.
"I've always had an interest in the economy and politics and it was the most interesting time," says the 29-year-old, on a career break.
After a trip to Victoria Falls, Adrian headed to capital Harare, where he found he was the only tourist at the city's grand Meikles Hotel. The only other overnighters were election observers, he says, and the tourist industry appeared to have "completely shut down".
"I realised it wasn't going to be Disneyland. I saw a couple of other tourists in a backpacker place - but basically there was nothing to do for tourists."
Although the shops and shelves "were empty", if travellers have US dollars, supplies can always be bought on the black market which is "working proficiently", says Adrian, who now lives in Australia.
Safety was one of Adrian's main concerns and he ensured he always stayed near other people. The suburbs in particular "felt more intimidating", he says.
However, despite the challenges, Adrian says Zimbabwe was the most interesting part of his travels so far, but reluctantly admits: "I wouldn't be recommending people to go there."
As well as those attracted to Zimbabwe by history-in-the-making, the country's wildlife still acts as a draw for hunters, those on safari and volunteers on working holidays.
For former gym manager Ffion Bishop, of Kent, the desire to get involved with a lion conservation project was stronger than her safety concerns. The reassurances of her volunteer placement organisers, African Impact, also helped her feel more comfortable.
"I would have considered it [Zimbabwe] due to what I heard about the variety of wildlife here, although it would have been a harder decision if the project was not here to help," she says.
Although the 21-year-old has experienced daily power cuts, problems with telephone lines, the impact of food shortages and currency difficulties, she admits she has been shielded from much of Zimbabwe's troubles thanks to the protective environment at Antelope Park, in the country's midlands.
A generator on site allows her to "straighten her hair" and internet access means she can update her Facebook page to let family and friends know how she is doing.
Ffion has even extended her original one-month working holiday until September. "I may even come back to Zimbabwe given half a chance," she adds.
But Adrian and Ffion remain in the minority. Tourism in the country is not what it once was.
In 1999, before the government began its forced seizures of white-owned commercial farms in 2000, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority recorded 597,000 overseas arrivals. But by 2005, after the collapse of the economy, the number of visitors from outside Africa was down to a low of 201,000.
"Tourism has slowed to a trickle in the last few years," says Tom Hall, travel editor of the Lonely Planet guides.
"It is a shame because as well as Zimbabwe being the bread basket in that area of Africa - with agriculture and farming - it was also a tourism success story."
However, Zimbabwean authorities claim figures are now slowly climbing again, with 217,600 overseas tourists arriving last year. This includes a massive 42% rise in visitors from the Middle East.
"It has been a real challenge for us because not always what the media says is what is going on on the ground," says Felicia Munjaidi, who promotes Zimbabwe tourism in the UK for the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority.
The country remains a "value-for-money" destination, she says, and insists Zimbabweans are still "known worldwide as the most welcoming hospitable people".
However, not everyone accepts the optimistic figures quoted by tourism chiefs.
"I don't believe them," says John Robertson, an independent economist in Harare, who states the government is "desperate to express what is happening in more upbeat terms".
FOREIGN OFFICE ADVICE
The FCO advises against all but essential travel to Zimbabwe. But such travellers are told:
Keep a low profile
Do not travel to high density, low-income suburban areas
Monitor local media for developments
Although tourism is probably no worse than it was a few years ago, it cannot be argued there has been a recovery, he says.
"We have very, very under-occupied hotels, a very low degree of trade of tourist type items - those shops are barely functioning."
He believes it will take years for the industry to get back on its feet. Hotels need overhauling, new aircraft bought, fuel and food shortages resolved and favourable exchange rates brought in before tourists will be drawn back in any great numbers, he says.
But, he adds, the biggest challenge will be restocking the country's wildlife, which he claims could take 25 to 30 years.
The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force estimates game ranches have lost between 80% and 90% of wildlife to poachers, with national parks down almost 40%.
"The wildlife is nowhere near as abundant as it was because of all the poaching and illegal hunting. This is all linked to the failing economy," says Johnny Rodrigues, the task force's chairman. "Unemployment is rife so the locals have no money and no food. They see the wildlife as meat for the pot."
So what of the ethics of visiting a country with such a poor record on human rights and conservation?
Tourism Concern does not advise against going, but says travellers should bear in mind tourist dollars spent at "big international hotels or foreign-owned safari lodges" will not necessarily benefit local people or the wildlife.
But Timothy George, of British-based tour company African Sunset, is more positive about the power of tourist cash. For every 22 tourists, one job is created for a local person, he says.
He believes visitors will return to Zimbabwe because the country still has what tourists are looking for and this will, in turn, help the country get back on its feet.
"Yes, there is political strife and things that are not right in terms of what the government is doing, but the country is really something to behold. People go on holiday to have an experience and that place has that ability...it has the wow factor."
Yet, however optimistic some in the industry remain, most appear to agree Zimbabwe will only truly win back its rightful place on travellers' itineraries when it achieves genuine economic and political stability.
Below is a selection of your comments.
I was at Victoria falls, Zambia, last year and there were many tourists paying the 50 USD for a Zim visa simply to see the falls from the other side of the border. I wonder how many of the 218,000 visitors are only venturing about 1km into Zimbabwe to see Vic Falls for the day.....
This was an interesting story but I would have liked to know what 'value for money' means. There were no prices in the report. How much is it for one of the empty hotel rooms, a safari, beer or taxi?
Chris Allen, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
The western scribes exaggerate the safety concerns for tourists in Zimbabwe. This place is safer than what you may think of. We concur that there is economic meltdown, but there is more to that. Zimbabweans are a resilient lot showing tremendous energy even in the hardest times, beaming with every aura of warmth for visitors. Come visit us here in our little piece of heaven of Mutare, one of the less beaten tracks for the tourists http://cityofmutare.googlepages.com/
Lovemore Dzakamenywa, Mutare, Zimbabwe
Read the article with interest and can concur with a lot of the comments. As to our feelings, we visited for the first time Christmas and New Year 2008 with our 15 year old son and so fell in love, that we are returning this Sept 08 for 3-4 more weeks. The country is amazing, wildlife was abundant (even in the worst rainy season for years)but the people made it very special. I am not sure about the visitor numbers quoted above, I think Christmas/New Year would be one of the busiest times and we saw nobody at Vic Falls at Christmas! We are partaking in a national game count at Mana Pools this year so will also have accurate info on game numbers after that. We are taking the majority of food with us (dried goods) as it is near impossible to buy except through some hotels. It is not a place for folk who are not prepared to be flexible but it does make our whingeing about minor inconveniences seem rather pathetic!
Becca Charron, Corfe Castle, direst, UK
As Ffion's sister, I know she has had the time of her life in Zimbabwe. She is due home in 2 weeks, though I fully expect FFion to return in the near future, regardless of the current problems the country is facing. She has loved every minute! (However we miss her terribly)
Elin Bishop, Manchester
I visited Zimbabwe in 2006 and have declared to visit again. The situation was not good then, and it pains me to see the situation the country is now in, just 2 years on. I only travelled through the western side, from Vic falls to South Africa, but during the 2 weeks found the people the most friendly, and the countryside the most stunning of all 4 Southern African countries I visited during my trip. I have utter admiration for all the local park rangers and lodge owners in Hwange & Matopos NPs, all pooling in together to ensure the welfare of the remaining wildlife. Some of the rangers used to work on the farms until the land re-distribution, but had to seek other work to feed their families as they did not have the skills to the run the farms. Their dedication to the cause is bordering on heroic in light of the political situation.
I visited Zimbabwe last year & I'm due back in 2 weeks time. We found everyone, officials & citizens very welcoming & helpful.
If you want "away from the maddening crowd" here it is! I do not see my money as supporting Mugabe but as giving life to wonderful people!
roger, Ashford, Kent. UK
I think many people would like to visit countries like Zimbabwe which have a lot to offer but most tourists would find that there were too many complications, such as travel insurance and currency issues. I recently went on an overland tour from Cape Town to Nairobi and most of the overland companies are unfortunately no longer entering Zimbabwe. Our tour company was still planning on entering Zimbabwe when we left Cape Town but when we got nearer political tensions had intensified and at the time Zimbabwe was on the list of countries the Foreign Office advised against all travel to. I was disappointed because I would like to have seen even a small part of Zimbabwe and if it had been a few weeks either side of the elections we still would have gone in. Some people from my tour went across from the Zambian side of Victoria Falls but British people only get single entry visas into Zambia which cost more than any other nationality (USD140) so it wouldn't have been worth paying all that money to get back in to Zambia again which I needed to do to continue my tour. I would consider going to Zimbabwe in the future but only if the political and economic situation there stabilised.
Amy Bryant, Hertfordshire, UK
My wife son and I spent 6 weeks in Zim last Sept. and it was the best holiday we have ever had. We did have inside help as my sister lived there at the time (she has since left) but we never felt unsafe. Wonderful people, wonderful place. We stayed out of trouble spots, (there are some parts of London I wouldn't walk around after dark!) and as long you had US dollars you could get stuff. Hotels in Victoria Falls had food, beer wine and the like but you paid in US. Wangi game park had more food and drink than you could eat and enough fuel to get us around. Again paid in US. They just popped across to Botswana periodically for supplies. The problem is the people who have to live there and get paid in Zim dollars. Desperate!!!!
As an ex Zimbabwean, I agree that the beautiful country has a lot to offer, but it must not be forgotten though that every amount of foreign currency that goes into the country helps to prop up the Government.
Lesley Strasser, Seaford. UK
I think it is pretty disgusting to visit Zimbabwe at this time as a tourist. Too flaunt your western wealth in the faces of people who have suffered so much at the hands of a wretched and despicable dictator is frankly brainless. I visited Zimbabwe in the mid nineties and even then the poverty in the rural areas was obvious. I hate to think what it is like now and I would not spend one more penny propping up such a nasty regime whose clear aims and objectives are to annihilate life on earth too fill it's on coffers.
E C, Whetstone UK
The story is very good because it tells the real truth about the issue of tourism and reality about political situation in Zimbabwe. so, tourism authority in the country should be independent from the government problems and provide security measures to protect tourists. Zimbabwe is a good place for tourism especially its some times called a home for lions and elephants without forgetting Victoria falls created by God him self. Authorities should really work hard to provide security so that we the nature lovers can visit all animals and good nature created by God. if you do not do that, i think God will ask you many question and even question why you make those animals remain in starvation for good tourists.
John Sesonga, Kigali, Rwanda
Backpacker tourists still flocking to Zimbabwe does not surprise me at all. Backpackers are usually very tight with cash, but desperately yearning to have impressive and "hard-core" tales to tell in a blase manner when they get home. So, going to a destination like Zimbabwe fits the bill perfectly. Backpackers perceive that it's not an all out "shooting war", which would seem actually dangerous. They see that it's just suffering "economic and internal political problems", which is interpreted as seeming cheap and non-threatening to outsiders. Many feel that the kudos amidst peers that they can earn through vicariously dropping in and scooting around the country with their fistfuls of Rands and Pounds in a country in the news all the time is just the ticket.
T Miller, London, UK