Zimbawe's crisis frightens away tourists

Mugabe's state » An industry that accounted for a big slice of the economy is paralysed in the run-up to the presidential election
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The young Japanese couple strolling down the streets of Harare were the first tourists I had spotted in two days. They were the only survivors of a tour group originally numbering 40 – all the others pulled out in fear of Zimbabwe's political instability – and were well outnumbered by guards at their smart hotel.

The young Japanese couple strolling down the streets of Harare were the first tourists I had spotted in two days. They were the only survivors of a tour group originally numbering 40 – all the others pulled out in fear of Zimbabwe's political instability – and were well outnumbered by guards at their smart hotel.

"We wanted to see Victoria Falls," said the wife, who did not want to be named. "It was great, but we find the city dirty. We're glad we're only staying one night."

Gloriously ignorant of local politics, except that it had frightened off their fellow travellers, they were eager to return to South Africa, the base for their three-country lightning tour of southern Africa's top spots.

It is difficult to find a tourist in Zimbabwe, even though the government claims 1.4 million visited last year. "I think there's one staying here," said the manager of a hotel in the capital, "but I haven't seen him." Another operator in the collapsing industry was furious with South African colleagues, exclaiming: "They're bringing people to Victoria Falls without even admitting it's in Zimbabwe."

Such economy with the facts is understandable in the weeks before next month's presidential election. Travellers are quizzed at police roadblocks, foreign cars are monitored and visitors hit by a wildly inflated exchange rate. There are daily reports of rural lawlessness, political assaults and arrests.

Since President Robert Mugabe encouraged militants from his ruling Zanu-PF party to begin seizing white-owned farms nearly two years ago, thousands of farm workers have been made homeless and more than 100 people have died. Only nine of them, however, were white farmers. The overwhelming majority have been supporters of the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Zimbabwe's tourism industry, which at its height accounted for 15 per cent of the economy, has turned to the regional market in an attempt to stay afloat. "We only get South Africans these days," said a bed-and-breakfast owner in Harare. "We used to be packed with Dutch and Germans, and we'd get two or three big adventure groups a week. We've only had one this year."

Nor is the atmosphere likely to change before the elections on 9 and 10 March. On Friday Mr Mugabe set the tone for his campaign with an opening speech in which he lambasted the opposition, Zimbabwe's tiny white minority and Britain, the former colonial power. The day before, the legislature passed a bill which finally stamps out press freedom and threatens unaccredited correspondents like myself with two years in jail.

This leaves the field clear for newspapers like the state-owned Herald, which claimed recently that tourism was "a shining beacon", despite "incessant negative publicity by the international press". But tourists continued to arrive from Britain and Ireland, it said in another report – 131,000 in the first nine months of last year. "Nationals of the UK, which has been at the forefront of demonising the country and President Mugabe in particular, have ignored the reports of alleged 'violence and lawlessness'," it claimed.

For the bold, Zimbabwe is still a wonderful place to be, but at the Leopard Rock hotel in the Vumba mountains, there were more gardeners than players on the perfectly manicured golf course. The hotel contained only a conference group of government employees and a farming family ejected from their land.

"Please tell people to come back," said Emmerson Sharwu, a curio seller near Nyanga. "There's no one passing, and we're starving." With the European Union having set this weekend as the deadline for the imposition of sanctions and the Commonwealth also under pressure to take action, it was hard to explain to him that the tourists were unlikely to return any time soon.

Comments