Upheaval in Zimbabwe tourism, but who really cares?
DURING my student days at Nyaminyami Rural District Council’s Mola Secondary School in 1993, I developed a fruitful friendship with a great footballer and fisherman, Peter Peter.
What bound us together were not his predatory instincts on the football pitch or his fishing prowess but his zeal to climb up the corporate ladder by upgrading his skills.
His determination was astounding.
He played good football and worked hard on the imposing waters of Lake Kariba’s unpredictable Kapenta isles at nights, but still came home to defy sleep and study for his Ordinary Level (‘O’ Level) certificate.
In between throwing the nets and battling to extract the elusive fish, he would study.
So, I was excited when in 1993, Peter swept past the myriad of hurdles to obtain the vital five ‘O’ Level subjects, which catapulted him into the tourism industry.
It was a huge achievement considering the attractiveness of Zimbabwe’s destinations, which achieved a record 2,5 million arrivals in 1999.
Blue chips were lining up to invest in Africa’s Paradise, as the Kariba region is known.
At Katete Safari Lodge, a magnificent resort overlooking the lake from a scenic plateau seven kilometres west of Bumi Hills, in the middle of nowhere, Peter evolved from a fisherman to a professional hunter and guide. (We reported last year that this prime resort is now such a sorry sight due to neglect, and fortunately Bumi Hills has reopened).
In 1996, Peter was happy.
On Christmas holidays, Katate Safari Lodge, whose hallmark was giving patrons the best views of the lake as it defiantly weaves its way through imposing foothills on both sides of Zimbabwe and Zambia, was 100 percent full.
But within a drama filled two years, the resort’s extraordinary success had taken gloomy turn.
Peter was dump founded.
One day in 1997, he told me that Katate was hosting only one tourist, a tale that now reminds me of the genesis of the rot that has paralysed the tourism sector.
Unfortunately, as in other economic spheres, tourism industry stakeholders did not have the antennas to pick the signals of an impending catastrophe, triggered by factors that included an economic and political crisis that stifled domestic tourism and deterred high spending Western tourists.
As government violently drove out over 3 000 white commercial farmers off large swathes of land to rearrange the profile of agriculture at the turn of the millennium, red lights flickered amid an avalanche of bad global publicity, overturning the fortunes of an industry that had been on a path to prosperity.
Iconic resorts under the ZimSun brand (now African Sun) surrendered to the forces of demand and supply.
These included Bumi Hills Safari Lodge, a jewel in ZimSun’s crown, and Katete, in a whirlwind that ruined huge investments like Lake View Inn, Fothergill Island Resort, Kiplings Safari Lodge (before takeover by Innscor Africa), Kariba Breezes, Bulembi and a string of other low profile but important facilities that generated the hard currency which Zimbabwe desperately needed.
To the south east, Mahenye Safari Lodge folded.
On my visit to Matetsi Resort in 2010 it was a vibrant operation, but four years later in 2014, they were shutting it down.
The crisis more recently reached city hotels like Quality International, transforming these places from areas of bliss to near graveyards.
In the bushes, workers lost jobs away from the glare of publicity that highlights similar developments in metropolitan corporations.
The luxury cruising sector slipped into a comma, and has remained paralysed.
At Andora Habour in Kariba, it is easy to enjoy the breathtaking views offered by a fleet of white vessels as they innocently line up the eastern front shores of the world’s second largest man-made lake.
One is struck by reality when experts mention that these monumental assets, hallmarks of man’s engineering ingenuity, are grounded due to declining business.
Some have been docked for many months now.
I thought I had seen the worst of the tourism industry in Kariba.
But while exploring lakeside resorts in Binga three years ago, far more discouraging scenes awaited me.
The slowdown has forced lodges to scale down operations there, resulting in retrenchments.
Binga District’s 139 000 residents, mostly peasant farmers, have traditionally depended on fishing, tourism and crocodile farming.
Tourism industry players said tourists were avoiding the resort.
“People have decided to drive at night,” said Cephas Mudenda, a tour operator.
“Is it worth it to have a roadblock here (in Binga) for eight hours?” he asked.
Magnificent waterfront safari lodges still line the massive banks of the mighty Zambezi.
As one descends a range of arid mountains into the spot once popular with Western tourists spending their money in one of Africa’s best kept secrets, the view is breathtaking.
But like the troubled cruise ship fleets of Kariba 300 kilometres to the east, what has kept Binga’s tourism industry afloat is hope of a turn in fortunes.
The world renowned Mlibizi Resort is a pale shadow of its former status.
The scale of closures spans from Hwange, the country’s largest wildlife park, to the eastern highlands.
It is one of the worst tourism crises that has been glossed over.
The list of horrors is endless.
But what is important to note is that it is a list of despair brought by economic mismanagement and sour relations with international tourist markets.
The outlook points to a far more serious crisis exposed by last week’s closure of the Rainbow Beitbridge Hotel (RBH), itself a victim of unchecked vice and corruption.
In the drama filled week, we also reported the liquidation of a long standing player in the tourism industry, United Touring Company, after battling to navigate the country’s harsh economic terrain, characterised by a slump in high quality Western tourists and a liquidity crisis, an increasingly weak middle class and harsh taxes being piled on tourists.
Of significance is the fact that RBH closed only five months after the collapse of its neighbour Beitbridge Express, owned by African Sun Limited (ASL).
Many things that have gone wrong came to the fore, and many of them are a result of outright economic mismanagement.
Government has moved to impose additional taxes on foreign tourists, and this has had dire implications on arrivals.
Does anybody care?
Then there are multiple roadblocks, which confront tourists at every inch of our pothole ridden roads.
Over-policing might look like a small issue, but it is certainly eating into State coffers because some tourists would just not return after undergoing the pain on our roads.
Who can explain why a country that so desperately needs foreign revenues charges extortionist rates in largely second rate hotels and resorts?
Who can explain why Zimbabwean airports are among southern Africa’s most expensive, charging landing and departure fees double that of neighbouring countries?
Investors trying to come up with innovative products to diversify a tired range of activities have been affected by political mudslinging.
The US$20 million Africa Albida’s fan park, quickly comes to mind.
We have built one of the finest airports in Africa at Victoria Falls, but what about feeder roads to resorts?
Why is the Zimbabwe National Roads Administration collecting millions in road user fees if it cannot improve accessibility?
In the thick of things is the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA), a largely derelict organisation supposed to implement powerful marketing strategies to complement individual efforts by hotels.
It spends millions organising cultural events.
Do we still need the ZTA given the duplication of duties replete between it and the Ministry of Tourism and Hospitality Industry?
These are the issues that authorities have to grapple with as they digest the unfortunate events of last week.
And if, as the ZTA claims, tourist arrivals are increasing, where are they staying?
The hotels say they are empty.
I have a strong feeling that we are being misled because for many years, we have not seen “strong buy” recommendations on the two leisure counters listed on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange, which have available data.
ASL and the Rainbow Tourism Group (RTG) have been navigating from one crisis to another, and their balance sheets are now demonstrating significant stress.
Recently, we wrote that after publishing their financial results for the year to December 31, 2015, African Sun and RTG had faced the grim reality of a recommendation from stock analysts that they would most disdain: Sell!
It’s a prospect they would certainly not want, but what else can they do in an economy being messed up by the very same people who should help it prosper?
So, when last week RTG shut down RBH, constructed only recently at a cost of nearly US$50 million, it confirmed the fears that I had always had.
RTG cited market factors characterised by depressed occupancies, low margins as well as high operating costs as the major reasons for exiting Beitbridge.
There is certainly very little economic players can do to improve these factors.
It’s the politics, stupid!
Touring firms are bleeding, airlines are in trouble, travel agencies are shaking.
The closure of the two hotels is just a tip of the ice bag.
We are facing more upheavals!
Follow us on Twitter @FingazLive and on Facebook – The Financial Gazette