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Tourism under threat

  Tourism is Zimbabwe's third largest earner of foreign exchange after tobacco and gold. But Zimbabweans are discovering the fickle, uncertain nature of the industry as unconnected events bring the tourism sector to its knees.

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Attractions of Zimbabwe

Without a large tourist market at home, Zimbabwe relies on visitors from overseas, a quarter of whom come from the UK and Ireland. In 1999, two million tourists came to visit the country's mountains, forests and game reserves. Spending by tourists generates up to 6% of the country's GDP and the industry directly employs around 200,000 people.

Victoria Falls
©Neil Cooper/Panos Pictures.
On the Zambia-Zimbabwe border in the west of the country, Victoria Falls is one of the world's most stunning sights and has attracted thousands of tourists.

Success through CAMPFIRE

Tourism development has helped many of Zimbabwe's poorer rural communities as part of the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources, or 'CAMPFIRE' for short. Through CAMPFIRE, foreign visitors buy licences to hunt wildlife within certain quotas. As well as keeping wildlife numbers at sustainable limits, the profits from these licences and the sale of meat and skins of the animals is ploughed back into local communities to build new schools, wells and health clinics.

Today, CAMPFIRE operates on land inhabited by 250,000 people across 22 districts. But as wildlife populations can only tolerate a certain amount of sport-hunting, CAMPFIRE is diversifying into other forms of tourism to help rural communities. This helps to slow down the drift of people to cities like Harare and Bulawayo. For example, Sunungukai camp near Harare offers visitors the chance to stay in traditional round huts, share meals with local residents, go on hikes with local guides, and spot wildlife. Through an elected committee, local people can decide how the camp's profits are spent.

To find out more about CAMPFIRE, visit www.campfire-zimbabwe.org/and visit Global Eye Summer 2000.

Internal Conflict
Yet these success stories are under threat. Trouble began in 1999 when severe fuel shortages made it difficult for tour operators to guarantee that tourists could travel to and from different attractions. The situation worsened in 2000 when longstanding protests over the distribution of land spilled over into violence. Thousands of Zimbabweans invaded and occupied the land of over one thousand (mainly white-owned) farms and some exclusive tourist resorts. TV pictures and newspaper reports of murders, brutal beatings and burned out farm buildings were broadcast around the world. Some governments issued travel warnings, and holiday insurance companies suspended travel cover to tourists travelling to Zimbabwe.

Local people call for an end to the violent land occupations.


Many potential visitors have voted with their feet and their credit cards and have chosen to go somewhere else. In 2000, visitor numbers fell by 60%. Some hotels experienced a 70% fall in reservations, and 66 local tour operators closed shop by the end of the year. Advanced reservations for the months to come have also slumped.

A Ripple Effect
For the communities that rely on income from tourism, the effects have been devastating. Since 2000, up to 10,000 Zimbabweans have lost their jobs as hotels and tour operators cut their workforces. Shops and markets selling soft drinks, crafts and souvenirs have struggled to make a living too. This ripple effect is even felt beyond the country's borders. As tourists cancel trips to Victoria Falls, side trips to neighbouring Botswana and Zambia also suffer, and European airlines that fly to and from Zimbabwe have watched their profits fall.

Coupled with the decline in other economic sectors, many Zimbabweans are left with a dwindling number of job opportunities. The unemployment rate in Zimbabwe has reached 60%, and 70% of the population now live below the poverty line.

Relying on food aid
© Neil Cooper/Panos Pictures.
Without the means to make a living, many poorer people struggle to obtain enough food for their families. Many Zimbabweans are relying on food aid.

Struggling Back
The Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) and the Zimbabwe Council for Tourism (ZCT) have the difficult job of trying to repair the country's reputation after so much bad publicity. News broadcasts about Africa tend to focus on bad news rather than good news. But according to the ZTA and ZCT, international media reports of Zimbabwe's troubles have been exaggerated. They argue that violence has been confined to certain areas far from tourist attractions, and that the international press fail to report similar violence in other countries, including neighbouring South Africa.

The ZTA and ZCT have joined forces with a number of European airlines to launch an information campaign against negative reporting, and to sell a more positive image of Zimbabwe abroad. To reduce dependence on overseas visitors, the ZTA is also looking at ways to boost the number of tourists from within the country.

Some people in the industry are optimistic that they can turn things around, and that the problem is only temporary. Already there are signs that tourists from South-East Asia are beginning to return, and Japan and Germany have recently removed their travel warnings. But coupled with the overall slump in worldwide travel following the terrorist attacks of 11 September, it could take years to re-build enough confidence overseas to bring about a full recovery in Zimbabwe's tourism sector.