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Curse of Zimbabwe hits southern Africa

Mugabe's regime is damaging the tourist trade in neighbouring countries, says Joanne Watson

As the obnoxious regime of President Robert Mugabe continues to abuse human rights, few tourists are travelling to Zimbabwe. Unlike Burma, there is no concerted tourism boycott of the country - rather, a collective sense of moral outrage at what Mugabe is doing to his country and people is keeping travellers away. But the stance many have adopted is severely affecting other southern African countries.

Victoria Falls, for many an essential component of any trip to southern Africa, is virtually deserted. Less obvious perhaps are the consequences for the tourist trade of Zimbabwe's neighbours, as the town is also a conduit for those wishing to cross the border into Botswana or Zambia.

The airport on Zimbabwe's side of the Falls airport is able to handle large aircraft; the nearest airfields in the other countries cannot. Many of those on my plane (which was about one-third full, with most passengers being American and French) were ultimately destined for countries other than Zimbabwe.

Even if you want to get out of Zimbabwe as fast as possible you still have to buy a visa, costing US$55 (£35) for a single entry (which allows day trips over the border) or $77 (£50) for a double-entry visa if you stay over in another country and intend to return the way you came. That's in addition to the $30 (£19) fee to get out.

The US dollar is king in Zimbabwe; all trip prices are quoted in dollars and then translated back into Zim dollars at the absurd official rate. The parallel rate varies, but it is around six or seven times higher - or, should you want to risk getting either mugged or arrested, even greater via the youthful local moneychangers in the town centre.

Like many, our trip was to see the game in Botswana's Chobe national park and to see the Victoria Falls from the Zambian side. In visiting both, it was immediately evident how they are being affected by the dearth of tourists.

Botswana, which has targeted an upmarket clientele, now finds its swish lodges on the border equally deserted. At $200 (£130) a night they used to do good business; now many people aren't prepared to travel through Zimbabwe to get there. The large boats that once cruised up and down the river are moored, redundant, on the banks. During a morning game-drive we saw just three other vehicles. An attempt to change some $50 bills into smaller denominations failed, as the hotel cashier said that they hadn't had any business generating dollars to make the currency available.

It's a similar story in Zambia. The nearest town to the falls is Livingstone, about seven miles from the border. Whereas hotel prices on the Zimbabwean side have fallen in a desperate attempt to generate business, those on the Zambian side have, bizarrely, multiplied. One hotel that quoted $120 (£75) a night last year is now asking $340 (£215), but there are few takers. Even the bungee-jumping operators on the grand old iron bridge over the Zambezi are trying in vain to drum up business.

A salutary lesson came in the deserted curio market. While we haggled over the price of a wooden hippo, another young stall-holder asked us for our used plastic water-bottles. They were wanted, he said, to put paraffin in as bottles were in short supply. So, too, is hope.