Unleashing Zimbabwe’s tourism potential

Harare, Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is a landlocked country located in southeast Africa, bordered by Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. The country has a population of over 15 million people, from which around 2.8 million people live in the metropolitan area around its capital, Harare.

This controversial country has been ruled by dictator Robert Mugabe since 1980, when its independency from the UK became internationally recognised. Zimbabwe’s history, like that of most African countries, is filled with long periods of political and economic turmoil. However, its natural sceneries remained a focus of touristic attraction throughout even the difficult times.

International tourism accounted for 20.3% of Zimbabwe’s exports in 2014 and generated a revenue of US$827m to the country. The Victoria Falls and the Zambezi river account as the most sought-after sightseeing places by the tourists visiting the country.

Although Zimbabwe holds unmatched natural beauties, the sector accounts for only a small portion of the country’s GDP. In 2015, tourism made up to only 5.2% of the GDP, falling from 5.6% in 2014. The country still struggles with the usual issues that affect tourism in other African countries, like deficient overall infrastructure – ranging from poor air transport and road infrastructure to tourism services infrastructure (an unfriendly business environment which creates a difficult environment for companies to do business in and, consequently, grow the hospitality sector) and issues with safety and security.

Although Zimbabwe still requires investments in the areas that support tourism, the country presents a huge potential for the development of this sector. With unmatched natural beauty, exotic and ancient culture and unique food this country has great potential to become a preferred tourist destination in Africa.

Improving the laws to attract foreign investment, fostering private-public partnerships in hospitality, and investing into marketing the Zimbabwean brand in the international market, could be the tourism sector’s first steps in gaining more traction in the country.

Tourism in sub-Saharan Africa

In 2015 the World Economic Forum published its sixth edition of the Travel and Tourism Competitive Report, which covered a broad range of aspects that affect the tourism industry in more than 140 countries. In its analysis, the report takes into account data from many fronts, such as international air carriers, customs authorities, the hotel industry, travel agencies and industry specialists to evaluate 90 indicators that, when put together, create a global rank of the “Most Tourist-ready Economies”.

The 90 parameters that compose the Global Travel and Tourism (T&T) Competitive Index are grouped into four categories: enabling environment; travel and tourism and enabling conditions; infrastructure; and natural and cultural resources. The index provides a good comparison of the attractiveness of the tourism industry in different countries, showing which areas are doing well and what could still be improved upon.

Overall, Africa’s tourism sector faces some hardships that prevents countries from exploring a large and untapped potential. With the most diverse fauna and flora in the world, beautiful beaches, rivers and waterfalls, rich culture and food, Africa as a whole could greatly develop its tourism industry. Longstanding infrastructural challenges, low health and hygiene standards, closed or bureaucratic business environments and lengthy and difficult processes in obtaining a visa are the main obstacles hindering the development of the tourism industry in the continent.

South Africa still remains as the most tourism-ready country in sub-Saharan Africa. However, in the Global T&T Competitive Index, it ranks 48th. Zimbabwe ranks lower, both in the regional group (15th in sub-Saharan Africa) and globally (115th position).

According to the T&T Competitive Report, Zimbabwe has strong natural resources, like world heritage cultural sites, animal species, protected areas and a high quality natural environment. It also ranks well in ease of finding skilled employees and female labour force participation. However, the overall business environment sector still lacks a solid base necessary to attract more investment. Rules on foreign direct investment, property rights and the steps necessary to obtain construction permits and open a business are some of the issues faced by entrepreneurs of the tourism sector.

Most Tourism-ready Economies in Sub-Saharan AfricaGlobal RankRegional Rank
South Africa481
Cape Verde866
The Gambia10912

Zimbabwe’s tourist attractions

Zimbabwe is distinctive in Africa for its large number of medieval-era city ruins built in a unique dry stone style. Possibly the most famous of these are the Great Zimbabwe ruins in Masvingo, which originate from the Kingdom of Zimbabwe era. Located in the southeast of the country, near Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo, the ruins constitute what used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe.

The stone city, built between the 11th and 15th centuries, spans an area of near 800 hectares and its population exceeded 10,000 people. Circa 1450, the capital was abandoned due to deforestation and because the hinterland could no longer furnish food for the overpopulated city. It is recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Great Zimbabwe National Monument

In western Zimbabwe, the Zambezi National Park and the Victoria Falls National Park cover an area of 56,000 hectares. The parks are dissected by the great Zambezi River, which also forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia for much of its length. A wide variety of large mammals may be found within the parks, including elephants, lions, buffalos and leopards. In addition, herds of sable antelope, eland, zebra, giraffe, kudu, waterbuck and impala, as well as many of the smaller species of game, can be viewed there. The Zambezi River is home to over 75 species of fish and is famous for its bream and fighting tiger fish.

Besides the fauna, the Victoria Falls is one of the most popular attractions in the parks. The waterfall stands at an altitude of about 915m above mean sea level and spans to about 1,708m wide, with an average depth of 100m – the deepest point being 108m. Sprays from this giant waterfall can be seen from a distance of 30km.

Victoria Falls

The Eastern Highlands are a 300km long strip of mountains, which form the natural border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The region has a climate cooler and wetter than other parts of Africa. The 47,000-hectare Nyanga National Park features Zimbabwe’s highest peak, Mount Nyangani, and Africa’s second-longest waterfall, Mutarazi Falls.

Northern part of the Eastern Highlands range as seen from Nyanga town

Located in the northwest part of Zimbabwe, the Hwange National Park is the largest park in the country, occupying roughly 1,47 million hectares. It became the royal hunting grounds to the Ndebele warrior-king Mzilikazi in the early 19th century and was set aside as a National Park in 1929. Hwange hosts a wide number of species, including over 100 different mammals and 400 species of bird. A significant feature of the park is the absence of permanent surface water. Animals rely heavily on a series of waterholes, many of which dry up completely during drought years. To ensure the livelihood of the animals, these waterholes are maintained by non-profit organisations throughout the year.

Zimbabwe’s tourism in numbers

Zimbabwe has certainly a number of natural attractions that justify a growing tourism industry. In 2014, Zimbabwe featured among the group of sub-Saharan African countries where the tourism sector constitutes a large part of the country’s exports (see Figure 1). After a drop in the relative size of the sector to total exports in 2011 (when it accounted for only 13.5% of exports), the tourism sectors’ contribution increased to 20.3% by 2014, showing the growing importance of the tourism industry for the Zimbabwean economy (see Figure 2).

In recent years, the number of international tourists visiting Zimbabwe also steadily grew. From 1.8 million foreign tourists in 2012, the number increased by 200 thousand within 3 years (see Figure 3). However, 86% of Zimbabwe’s tourists come from other African countries (1.76 million tourists) (see Figure 4). Tourists coming from South Africa make the vast majority, accounting for near 750 thousand visits in 2015.

The expenditure by international tourists in Zimbabwe is also observed to have risen markedly over the past years (see Figure 5). From US$ 523 million in 2009, the amount of money foreign visitors spent in Zimbabwe grew to US$ 886 million by 2015.

Figure 1 – Size of Tourism Industry as a Percentage of Country’s Exports – Sub-Saharan African countries – 2014

Figure 2 – Size of Tourism Industry as a Percentage of Country’s Exports – Zimbabwe

Figure 3 – International Tourism Number of Arrivals – Zimbabwe

Figure 4 – Total International Tourists Arrivals in Zimbabwe – 2015

Figure 5 – International Tourism Expenditure – Zimbabwe

Tourism constraints in Zimbabwe

The choice of Zimbabwe as a tourism destination is still very rare among non-African nationals. The lack of direct flights and limited marketing efforts constitute just a few of the barriers preventing a larger growth of the number of international travellers to the country.

The need for a visa can also make the difference between a decision on which country to visit. The Africa Visa Openness Report, created by the African Development Bank, McKinsey & Company and the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Africa, ranks countries on the openness of their visa regimes. Visa openness is about facilitating free movement of people, to carry out their business easily, spontaneously, quickly, with minimum cost.

The report takes into consideration whether a country requires foreigners to obtain a visa and, if it does, whether it has to be issued prior to the trip or on arrival. It also considers the number of countries from whose citizens a visa is required as a percentage of total number of countries. Seychelles scores the highest, being the most open country in Africa to international travellers. Seychelles has been considered an early reformer in relaxing visa requirements to boost its tourism sector. As a result, the country has seen 7% annual growth in international tourism arrivals between 2009-2014.

Zimbabwe ranks 27th in the Africa Visa Openness Report, requiring some sort of visa from travellers originating from 74% of the countries worldwide. However, Zimbabwe is one of only nine African countries offering eVisas. Electronic visas, or eVisas, can be a more effective alternative to traditional paper visas, given that online visas do not require the traveller to be physically present or to present a passport before travel. However, a request for an eVisa does not automatically give the visitor the visa. It can be accepted or refused and costs paid may not be reimbursed. From the 46 countries whose nationals are not required any visa to enter Zimbabwe, only 63% are non-African countries – and from those, many are small island states famous for receiving tourists, not exporting them. Antigus & Barbuda, Aruba, Grenada, Kiribati, Maldives, Nauru, Tonga and Tuvalu are only a few examples.

Once tourists arrive in Zimbabwe, they may face other hurdles. The economic crisis that has been affecting many sectors of the Zimbabwean economy, also caused delays in payment of public employees, including the police. By early this year, the government had not yet paid most of its employees their December salaries and annual bonuses. In the meantime, president Mugabe went off on a one month vacation to Singapore and China, accompanied by his family and a large entourage of security aides. The presidential holidays are expected to cost at least US$6m.

A consequence of having unpaid public employees, is that they will find other ways to make money: for instance, the growing number of police roadblocks along many highways in Zimbabwe. Masked as means to curb road carnage, these roadblocks are nothing more than a way found by the police to seize cash from unadvised tourists.

George Manyumwa, president of Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe (HAZ), acknowledges that the number of roadblocks is detrimental to tourism in the country. From Harare to Kariba, in the Charara Safari area, a distance of less than 400km, it is not surprising to find up to 20 police roadblocks. The problem of the excessive roadblocks became so common that there are several stories of hotels reportedly offering a discount equivalent to the traffic fines its guests would have racked up on their way to its lodgings.

With the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar in 2009, the country started using South African rand and US dollars as main currencies. Compared to other African countries, which saw their currencies devaluate in recent years, Zimbabwe became an expensive tourist destination with its dollarised economy. The low number of direct flights to Harare also adds to the cost tourists have to incur just to get to the country.

Unleashing potential

Tourism already accounts for a sizeable portion of Zimbabwe’s exports. However, this share could be much larger if proper infrastructure is put in place. Investments in infrastructure increasingly lag behind industry growth. Infrastructure investments such as in airport development, road and rail, and communication technologies are essential to unleash the potential of this industry and keep it growing.

As observed in innumerable cases, tourism does not develop before the introduction of a plan which includes upgrading tourism and transport infrastructure, calibrating fiscal incentives, restoring cultural heritage and launching national and international promotional campaigns.

Zimbabwe has recently made some progress in the tourism infrastructure area. In December 2015, a new terminal at the Victoria Falls International Airport was opened to passengers. This state-of-the-art airport has a 4km long runway capable to accommodate large aircrafts such as the A380. The airport is expected to attract 1.5 million passengers per year, a huge jump from the previous 176,000. It currently handles five airlines, but it has room for many more. Besides being able to receive more travellers willing to see the Victoria Falls National Park, the geographical location of the airport is favourable to make it a regional hub, bridging tourists between different African regions.

In July 2015, the Zimbabwean tourism sector gained international exposure due to the killing of a famous lion, Cecil, by an American tourist. Although the impact of the news was initially negative, the response of the Zimbabwean authorities to the case, showing a growing concern towards increasing measures that would avoid the repeat of such a tragic event, gained positive international recognition. This paves the road to more sustainable and environmentally friendly eco-tourism, which is a growing trend nowadays.

By end of 2015, Harare held the 18th edition of the International Conference on AIDS and STI’s In Africa (ICASA). The conference drew over 5,000 participants from 90 different countries. The event alone generated close to US$6m. This type of conference can become a powerful source of tourism revenue to Zimbabwe. Events like these increase the awareness of the host country and incentivises the government to invest in better infrastructure, which includes transportation, accommodation and air services. The elements of relaxation, shopping and sightseeing usually come as a by-product of the conferences. Foreign delegates frequently decide to extend their trips and enjoy the opportunity of exploring the touristic attractions of the new country. Zimbabwe should continue marketing the country as a host location for large international conferences.

In terms of creating employment, not only is the tourism sector relatively labour intensive, it also tends to employ more women and youth than most industries, and creates more opportunities for SMEs. While the belief persists that employment in tourism tends to be low-pay/low-skills, the sector increasingly demands high-skilled workers in areas such as in information and communications technology, and management and marketing. Developing specialised tourism niches also promotes higher-skilled employment.

Zimbabwe has a good base that could translate to a rapid and booming development of the tourism sector. It certainly has very beautiful fauna and flora, and ancient heritage that appeals to many travellers looking for adventure and relaxation. The government is making some progress in developing the sector, but with added private investment this pace could be largely improved upon. With the right strategy, Zimbabwe can become a major destination for international travellers from around the world. And, in the process, grow its economy.

The author, Otavio Veras, is a Research Associate of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, a trilateral platform for government, business and academia to promote knowledge and expertise on Africa, established by Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation. Otavio can be reached at [email protected].