The start of 2019 was highly anticipated by the tourism industry after Lonely Planet placed Zimbabwe as the world’s third best destination for the year. Years of moderate but steady growth have proven the sector’s resilience, despite adverse economic and political conditions.
But the new year optimism was short-lived. A whopping 130% hike in fuel prices infuriated Zimbabweans, with protests ensuing throughout the country. Reports of indiscriminate beatings, abductions, and rape by security forces followed and prompted the country’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa to suggest that heads would roll, if necessary.
During the protests the internet was switched off, bringing the tourism sector to a halt as booking cancellations took place, shops closed and flights were cancelled throughout the country, from Harare to Bulawayo and Victoria Falls. While the waters of the Zambezi still flow uninterrupted over the falls, the stream of tourists is at risk of drying up as visitors are unsurprisingly deterred by the violence.
In the aftermath of the protests, came the awkwardly timed announcement of the latest programme associated with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, designed to bring 350 Chinese visitors each month. The programme hints of a sense of urgency. In the midst of a currency crisis, the case for promoting tourism as a source of much-needed foreign exchange becomes stronger.
The recent inflation surge to 42% in December brought old hyperinflationary nightmares back, as the government carries on with its senseless monetary policy, insisting on a 1:1 official par to the dollar whilst its bond notes and dollars “stored” electronically, known as bollars and zollars trade at a huge discount to the dollar. The current liquidity crisis, shortage of fuel and raw materials will make sure investors keep their wallets closed – an unfortunate reality for a sector that could use an infrastructural refresh.
In the aftermath of a disastrous month, Mnangagwa’s year-old declaration that Zimbabwe is “open for business” seems increasingly bizarre to those who depend on tourism. It looks like it is just another year, another zollar to Zimbabweans.