The toppling of dictator president Robert Mugabe made 2017 a tumultuous year for Zimbabwe. But is a change of management enough to revive the country’s tourism fortunes?
Few would have predicted the extraordinary events that played out in Zimbabwe last November, when a peaceful, bloodless military coup changed the course of the country’s history—followed by jubilant celebrations that lasted for days. After 37 years in power, President Robert Mugabe, the independence-hero-turned-tyrant, was gone.
Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has vowed to turn around the country’s fortunes destroyed by the dictatorial regime, and promised to revitalize its beleaguered economy. So what might this mean for the country’s once-booming tourism industry?
Over the years, Zimbabwe has been both darling and pariah of the African safari scene. During the ‘90s, it welcomed around 1.5 million guests every year, offering some of Africa’s best game viewing, expert guiding, and elegant lodges and camps. But then, tourists boycotted the country as white-owned farm invasions, hyperinflation, corruption, and catastrophic economic mismanagement kicked in.
“We first featured Zimbabwe in 1996,” explains Chris McIntyre, managing director of specialist tour operator Expert Africa. “In the ‘Naughties’, as Mugabe’s rhetoric escalated, the number of travelers dropped like a stone. But after their currency was changed from the now-worthless Zimbabwean dollar to the globally-accepted US dollar in 2009, we saw growing confidence in the country, and fewer travelers were worried about the safety or ethical implications of traveling there.”
My own debut into Zimbabwe occurred in 2004, during those bleak years in between. Victoria Falls was at its most majestic, a roaring, angry torrent living up to its local name Mosi oa Tunya or ‘The smoke that thunders.’ We were drenched to the bone, walking through rainbows in the spray. But the town itself seemed to be drowning in a spiral of economic despair. Visitors stayed away. Hotels were deserted, touts desperate and intimidating. I stayed just one night, relieved to be leaving for Zambia the following day.
“Clients are looking to visit specifically because Mugabe is no longer there. They perceive this to be a new era for Zimbabwe.”
Chris McIntyre, Expert Africa
I too stayed away. But as tourism tiptoed back, so did I—in 2011—and was blown away by the experience. Victoria Falls town was buzzing with a new optimism and self-belief; it was crammed with visitors. Hwange National Park too seemed packed with wildlife—it certainly destroyed the popular misconception that there was none left here.
Lions, cheetahs, zebras, wildebeest, impala, giraffe, jackals, sables, and plenty more besides roamed the expansive savannah. And elephants were everywhere, sometimes in herds of over a hundred, mooching their migratory way to and from Botswana. I’ve returned many times since: Hwange never disappoints.
For adventurers, the country has plenty to offer. Mana Pools National Park provides a rare blend of freedom in the bush; you can canoe on the mighty Zambezi, go on walking safaris, sleep under the stars, and even camp on the riverbanks. Over in the Eastern Highlands is some fabulous hiking and a new zipline too, the world’s highest, while the spectacular 270-kilometer-long (168 miles) Lake Kariba is perfect for chilling on a houseboat. And with police roadblocks now lifted, self-drive holidays across the country are once again gaining in popularity.
It’s safe to say Zimbabwe appears to be on the up. “By 2017, our bookings had increased by over 60 per cent, compared to 2016,” confirms Expert Africa’s Chris McIntyre. “This trend has accelerated since Mugabe relinquished power: Clients are looking to visit specifically because he’s no longer there. They perceive this to be a new era for Zimbabwe.”
So will the new president usher in this new era? As Mugabe’s right-hand man, Mnangagwa was involved with orchestrating both the Gukurahundi massacres from 1983-87 when 20,000 Ndebele people died, and the extreme violence that characterized the 2008 elections—and there is genuine concern in some quarters that little will change.
However, he has promised free and fair elections by July 2018 and invited international observers to monitor them. His stated priorities are to reduce unemployment—estimated at a staggering 90 per cent—and to revitalize the economy with fresh foreign investment.
Ross Kennedy, CEO of Africa Albida Tourism in Victoria Falls, is optimistic. “Zimbabwe’s new political dispensation is bringing in a new era of inclusiveness and incentives that are attracting potential investors.”
And so far, the stats support this positive outlook. “Victoria Falls had a record December 2017 with 25 per cent growth in hotel occupancy levels from the previous December,” he tells me. “And much of the tourism industry is reinvesting in its product, properties and people—we’re investing half-a-million dollars in refashioning our exclusive Victoria Falls Safari Club. The optimism and ambition throughout Zimbabwe is tangible and exciting.”
Similarly, Imvelo Safaris has recently expanded and refurbished some of its lodges and is offering a new way to travel to your safari on beautifully restored, classic vintage carriages on the sleeper train from Victoria Falls to Hwange. From March, they’ll also be offering horse-riding for the first time in southern Hwange.
Accompanying these developments is the consistent, tireless effort to make a difference to the people of Zimbabwe. Many safari operators are heavily involved in protecting wildlife and working to improve the lives of local people, often helping to fill the huge void in resources created by Mugabe’s self-serving regime. Having stayed at lodges run by the likes of Imvelo, Wilderness Safaris, and African Bush Camps, I’ve seen for myself their deep commitment to communities and conservation. They provide scholarships, restore school buildings, pay teachers’ salaries, feed the pupils, and teach them about conservation. And they help women’s groups earn an income through projects like jewelery-making, sewing, and chicken-breeding.
What gives Zimbabwe the edge is that unlike many countries emerging from political turmoil, it’s ready to hit the ground running, at least as far as tourism is concerned.
“Local people are our best bulwark against the onslaught of internationally-funded organized elephant and rhino poaching,” Imvelo’s managing director Mark Butcher explains. “Every cent that we can devolve from tourism to those villages strengthens that defense, whether it be through jobs, school feeding programs or providing clean water—it improves the likelihood of poachers being reported and bought to book.”
The previous political regime had precious little interest in conservation, but Mnangagwa does appear to be of a different mindset. Great Plains Conservation (GPC), a high-end safari operator, is embarking on its first ever ventures into Zimbabwe with new luxury camps near Mana Pools and in Zambezi National Park, and they too welcome the government’s change of approach.
“We’re very positive about the future of Zimbabwe’s tourism, particularly in the wake of the new President announcing his commitment to the conservation and protection of the country’s natural resources,” GPC’s Zimbabwe ambassador, Shelley Cox, tells me. And in May 2018, GPC will offer a six-day journey across the Zambezi Valley, combining Mana Pools with their exclusive new concession, Sapi.
“Guests will be contributing to the rehabilitation and recovery of the Sapi Concession, a former hunting reserve,” she adds. “We’re extremely excited about our collaboration with National Parks to increase the protected habitat within the Valley, the anticipated increase in wildlife and possible reintroduction of species.”
What gives Zimbabwe the edge is that unlike many countries emerging from political turmoil, it’s ready to hit the ground running, at least as far as tourism is concerned. Its wildlife is thriving, its beauty unspoilt, its people warm and welcoming. And they are perhaps the most important element in the mix—their peaceful, jubilant transition to the new presidency has reassured the world the country is safe.
“Yes, 2018 is undoubtedly going to be a great year for Zimbabwean tourism,” Imvelo’s Mark Butcher declares. “But perhaps more importantly, it will be great for all the people in remote villages around our parks and all the wildlife whose very survival depends on our tourism dollar.”
Never has there been a better reason—nor a better time—to go back.
Sue Watt is an award-winning London-based writer with a passion for African travel and conservation. Her bylines appear in The Times, The Telegraph, The Independent, BBC Wildlife, Travel Africa and Luxury Travel Magazine.