North Korea soccer team cancels Zimbabwe stay

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s government is busy planning for spinoffs from the 2010 soccer World Cup, just three weeks away.

Zimbabwean officials are hoping that the huge soccer tournament hosted this year by South Africa will boost this neighboring country with tourists and training camps. But the benefits do not appear to be coming. Already one of the planned visitors, North Korea, has pulled out. 

President Robert Mugabe's government is dreaming of an influx of tourists as international fans coming to South Africa for the World Cup extend their trips by traveling north of the Limpopo River to Zimbabwe. Here they would be able to see a magnificent array of wildlife in the country’s national parks, the mighty Victoria Falls and a sophisticated tourism infrastructure. The trouble is there appear to be few takers.

The Harare government has also tried to attract visiting teams for pre-World Cup training — to acclimatize to the southern African altitude, time zone and weather — which would have provided an important source of revenue.

Zimbabwean Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi announced triumphantly in April that the North Korean team was the first of several to confirm they would come to Zimbabwe for training.

Mzembi should have know that North Korea would be the last country that Zimbabweans would welcome. They blame the North Koreans for playing a notorious role in the Matabeleland Massacres of the 1980s. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Zimbabwean civilians lost their lives at the hands of the Zimbabwe Army's Fifth Brigade, a unit that had received special training from North Korean military advisors in brutal counter-insurgency tactics. Shortly after the instruction, the Fifth Brigade was deployed by Mugabe in southern Zimbabwe in 1982 to crush dissent from supporters of rival nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo.

The killings, torture and destruction that took place during the so-called Operation Gukurahundi from 1982-7 have left a burning scar on the people of that region, who now support the Movement for Democratic Change led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. As soon as they heard that the North Korean team was coming to Zimbabwe, they protested vociferously against allowing the Asian team to train here.

On May 19, Mzembi announced that North Korea would no longer be coming to Zimbabwe. It is not known whether the team changed its plans because of the protests.

Brazil has been another disappointment. Mzembi and Zifa (Zimbabwe Football Association) Chief Executive Henrietta Rushwaya traveled to Brazil last year to advertise Zimbabwe’s bid to host teams wishing to take advantage of the country’s champagne air and refurbished facilities. But since then not a word has come from Rio de Janeiro.

Meanwhile, even hotels that have invested in renovations are likely to be given a wide berth by tourists. First of all the numbers of international tourists are fewer than what the enthusiastic South Africans forecast. Second, most are attending the World Cup and then returning home.

Third, Zimbabwe generally is suffering from the bad publicity that followed electoral violence in 2008 and persistent misrule. Victoria Falls hotels enjoy good occupancy rates of about 70 percent, but the Eastern Highlands hotels on the other side of the country have bookings of only 30 percent of capacity, according to Emmanuel Fundira, head of the Zimbabwe Council of Tourism.

Ironically there has been a mini-boom of  “soccer refugees” — South Africans avoiding what they expect will be crowds, traffic jams and other annoyances in South Africa’s teeming cities, most notably Johannesburg, where the finals will be held.

South Africa has a reputation for crime and this week the Zimbabwe police announced they were setting up a command center that would contribute to regional safety and security.

They fear an influx of a different kind of tourist — fraudsters, thieves and vehicle hijackers. These are a familiar phenomena in South Africa but less well known in Zimbabwe.

“As the World Cup draws near,” police spokesman Chief Superintendent Oliver Mandipaka said, “we are cognizant of the fact that criminals might want to take advantage and pounce on tourists. As such there will be total increased visibility countrywide.”

One thing that will deter criminals as well as tourists who use the road route to Zimbabwe is the chaos at the Beitbridge border post with South Africa. For years visitors and returning residents have complained of congestion, hawkers, crime and poor administration on the Zimbabwe side. On the other hand, Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, is only an hour-and-a-half flight from Johannesburg. And the flight is much more relaxed.

What is certain is that Zimbabwe’s authorities are likely to be disappointed in the final tourism revenues while many of those who do come will no doubt be pleasantly surprised by the scenery and hospitality they experience.