UNWTO 2013 : Victoria Falls From Grace

How do you build a 4,000 seater convention centre, a shopping mall, a casino, a theme park and two luxury hotels in twelve months on a site you have yet to finalise? And how do you do it on virgin soil in the middle of Africa, miles from anywhere and in one of the most disfunctional countries on the planet? More to the point, how do you do it with no money at all?

These are the questions which Zimbabwean Minister of Tourism, Mr Walter Mzembi, will be answering shortly when the next UNWTO inspection team lands in Harare.

In May this year, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe signed a trilateral agreement with Zambia and the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) to co-host the 20th Session of the UNWTO General Assembly in August 2013. At this event Mugabe promised the world that Zimbabwe would deliver a "trully African Experience".

The country won the bid to co-host the event at Victoria Falls in partnership with Zambia by default. The other four competitors pulled their bids out at the last moment, leaving Zambia and Zimbabwe to carry the can for an organisation that has long lost its relevance. The event is expected by the organisers to attract as many as 4,000 delegates, journalists and visitors from some 180 countries.

Earlier in the month Minister Walter Mzembi informed Parliament that the negotiations for the land in which to build "Zimbabwe's Tourism Showcase" was progressing well in as much as they had reduced the short list of identified sites for ten to three but that no final decision had been made yet.

Shortly thereafter, Tourism Secretary Sylvester Maunganidze announced that Zimbabwe had lied about the state of its infrastructure in order to win the bid to host what bureaucrats call tourism's biggest global event.

"We made our bids using electronic presentations which we manipulated because we were competing," he revealed before Parliament's Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism portfolio Committee. "If other players don't play ball, there will be an imaginary Victoria Falls which I have sold very well to the world, but which is not there."

The "other players" to which Secretary Maunganidze refers are Zimbabwe's beleaguered private sector and Mugabe's crony transnationals like Nestle and an odorous bouquet of British interests. It remains to be seen what their response will be; so far no volunteers have stepped up to the plate.

Transport Ministry Secretary Munesu Munodawafa has so far come up with the only practical proposition when he suggested that Zimbabwe should abandon the plans to build a world class 4,000 seater convention centre and rather focus on the idea of building a "semi-permanent structure from aluminium and glass". After all, the Crystal Palace worked very well for the Great Exhibition of London in 1851 and it would work for Vic Falls 2013. Consider the vision ...

Not to be left out, Zimbabwe's neighbour and partner, Zambia, has added further interest to the story by announcing that they too will build a conference centre for 4,000 people in Livingstone. As the private sectors of both towns are dead against the construction of these centres, observers speculate that they will be built and funded by the Chinese. Local businessmen point out that there is no actual need for these structures as the town has existing capacity sufficient for the event's real needs.

So it now appears that Zambia too will be buying a Crystal Palace from China to make the deadline.

This should get interesting ....

Will the UNWTO 2013 event destroy the very tourism assets it seeks to protect and promote? Time will tell.


Commentary by Pedro Buccellato, Architects Association, Johannesburg.