Simon Calder: Should tourists now return to Zimbabwe?
Saturday 28 February 2009
Two months into the year, and the language used by some in the travel industry is open to interpretation. I deduce that "We're a little down on last year" actually means "We're a lot down on last year". "Promising" translates as "We took a booking last week", while "There's definitely a groundswell of interest" decodes as "We haven't taken a booking all year". And if someone describes business as "Quite encouraging", you can probably conclude they are en route to administration.
If it's grim up here in the Northern Hemisphere, fly 70 degrees south and 30 degrees east to Harare, to see just how lousy life can be. Today, for the first time in more than a decade, The Independent Traveller is running a story on the wretched country of Zimbabwe.
"Welcome to Zimbabwe – now in its 150 millionth year": that was how the nation was first promoted after the civil war ended. Before Robert Mugabe's regime began to slide into despotism and to extinguish human rights, the country formerly known as Rhodesia enjoyed a spell as one of the most beguiling nations in Africa. I was lucky enough to visit twice in the 1990s. After exploring the Save region, close to the Mozambique border – off-limits during the insurrection against white rule – I wrote of the "openness, generosity and sheer good humour of life" I found.
Today, good humour has been eradicated along with hope, as Mugabe's thugs accelerate the rot that the president began. The benighted Zimbabwean people must scrape a living in an economy that has been plundered and wrecked as the West – and South Africa – look on.
How could anyone contemplate going on holiday to Zimbabwe, particularly when bringing in hard currency could help to prop up the despicable regime? And how could a newspaper committed to human rights suggest that you do?
Travel and politics are uncomfortable companions. The one success story of Britain's mainstream tourist industry this summer is likely to send more than two million of us to Turkey – a country that has oppressed its Kurdish people. Pretty soon in the 21st century, China – which seems to be doing its best to stifle Tibetan culture and trample on political dissent at home – will take over from France as the world's leading tourist destination. And Cuba, featured (yet again) on page 19 of this edition, is hardly a bastion of free speech and fair elections.
Yet we intend to continue to cover travel to all these destinations. You might see that as pragmatism: there are only so many stories that can be written about Scandinavia. But it also reflects the reality that these are the places to which Independent readers travel. Our commitment is to inspire, entertain and to inform travellers.
So where do we draw the line? At Burma: a decade ago, the democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, called for a tourism boycott until civilian rule is restored, saying "Burma will be here for many years, so visit us later". Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime.
Back to Zimbabwe. For the first time in a decade, the international community is seeking to re-engage with the Zimbabwe government, though with deep reservations about Mugabe's commitment to power-sharing. As Jeremy Laurance's fascinating story reveals, the human and indeed animal populations of Zimbabwe are desperate for overseas visitors in order to survive.
In any location with an oppressive government, trying to spend your cash to the maximum benefit of the people is always a good plan, but however careful you are about paying the lodge owners direct and tipping staff well, the regime is likely to get its hands on some of your spending money. But better that than the national parks are allowed to perish, destroying the future for tourism in Zimbabwe as surely as Mugabe is destroying the present.
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