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Can Zimbabwe re-attract tourists?

Mugabe's angry rhetoric and violent farm seizures blamed for decline in visitors.

A cow elephant with her calf feed on water hyacinth on the shores of Lake Kariba in northern Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe's abundant wildlife and sunny climate attract tourists, but a return to political and economic stability is needed to attract international visitors in large numbers. (Howard Burditt/Reuters)

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe has recently been flooded with glowing reports in the state media of a dramatic recovery in tourism. But those bulletins may be premature.

Tourist numbers have risen from 100,000 last year to 362,000 this year, according to industry reports, and many hotels have reported an increase in occupancy rates. But the hotel numbers do not take account of whole floors of leading hotels being blocked off.

Hotel swimming pools, once surrounded by flight crews seeking a tan in Zimbabwe’s perennial sunshine, are deserted. And while the number of visitors has undoubtedly increased, many are Chinese tourists who do not spend money or visitors from other African states who stay with relatives.

There has been a concerted campaign to bring in travelers from China where Air Zimbabwe now operates routes. But Chinese tourists move around in supervised gangs — called duck tours — and keep their hands in their pockets when visiting curio stalls.

“It’s a disaster,” said travel writer Dusty Miller of Zimbabwe’s “Look East” policy. “They are not big spenders and cannot substitute for tourists from our traditional markets in Europe and North America.”

In particular Miller laments the loss of the “golden triangle” — the London/Mauritius/ Australia route which delivered thousands of visitors including carefree backpackers into the Zimbabwean market.

Zimbabwe’s world-class facilities and attractions, particularly its game parks and Victoria Falls, saw a dramatic growth of the tourism industry in the 1980s and 90s when new players entered the scene. By 1999 Zimbabwe was expecting to attract 1 million tourists. But once Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis hit, and the country was viewed as volatile, tourist numbers plummeted.

President Robert Mugabe's penchant for making angry anti-Western rhetoric is a major obstacle to a recovery in tourism. While Western countries have lifted their travel warnings on Zimbabwe, the impression of a nation ruled by a hostile dictator has not changed. An Economic Empowerment Act which requires investors to surrender a 51 percent holding to locals in any project is another deterrent.

The power-sharing government between Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is a distinctly uneasy alliance. While the Tsvangirai side is working to put Zimbabwe on a better footing, for tourism and everything else, the Mugabe half of the government carries on as it has for nearly 30 years. These mixed signals do not reassure potential tourists.