Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

The announcement of the resignation of former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe last month after nearly four decades of authoritarian rule was greeted by Zimbabweans with joyful celebrations in the streets of Harare.

Although Mugabe stepped down only after the military took over the country and threatened the former president with impeachment, he himself claims his resignation was voluntary.

"My decision to resign is voluntary on my part and arises from my concern for the welfare of the people of Zimbabwe and my desire for a smooth, nonviolent transfer of power," said Mugabe in the letter that was read in Parliament.

The U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe congratulated the Zimbabwean people and said in a statement after the announcement: "Tonight marks a historic moment for Zimbabwe. We congratulate all Zimbabweans who raised their voices and stated peacefully and clearly that the time for change was overdue. Zimbabwe has a historic opportunity to set itself on a new path."

Taking over the reins from Mugabe is Emmerson Mnangagwa, who immediately after being sworn in promised to tackle the corruption that had become endemic under Mugabe's 37-year rule. Priscah Mupfumira took on the post as tourism and hospitality minister in the new cabinet.

The tourism industry rejoiced in the news that the authoritarian leader had stepped down, and they enthusiastically welcomed the new president and tourism minister.

Changes in leadership will boost tourism

African Bush Camps' Beks Ndlovu said that although Zimbabwe was always the "darling of the safari industry," many people stayed away in recent years because of the political climate.

Said Ndlovu: "Now that the country has seen a change -- a change that was witnessed and lauded around the world for its peaceful nature -- I believe that tourism will flourish in Zimbabwe. I don't think that there was a person in the world who watched the unfolding events in Zimbabwe without a sense of wonder for the pure joy and camaraderie that the Zimbabwean people demonstrated during the peaceful protests. This has resulted in a huge amount of love and respect for the country and the people."

According to Ndlovu, the change of perception of Zimbabwe over the last few weeks has put Zimbabwe firmly back on the map and back on the bucket list of many curious safari-goers. He said: "If anyone didn't know about Zimbabwe before then, they certainly do now."

Great Plains Conservation's ambassador for Zimbabwe, Shelley Cox, agreed, saying that while the country has seen a steady increase in tourist arrivals over the course of the last couple of years, she anticipates that these numbers will be even further bolstered thanks to an elevated confidence in the destination. "We are extremely positive about the future of Zimbabwe's Tourism," she said.

Jann Kingsley, managing director at Seolo Africa, added: "We are very optimistic that the recent political events in Zimbabwe bode change, positive change and a new dawn for Zimbabwe, the country and its people. It is the tourism industry that will feel the effects of this change the soonest."

Kingsley explained that the key messages President Mnangagwa has conveyed are of cooperation, ease of doing business, normalization of currency, less corruption and less harassment. "I'm confident that this change of leadership will result in a more business-friendly Zimbabwe that will be run economically instead of politically," she said.

Shearwater Adventures' Trish Mambinge has already seen an increase in requests from tourists. She said: "We believe the arrivals will increase as some people were no longer selling our destination as a result of the old leadership. We also believe that the few airlines that had stopped coming will resume their flights to our country soon."

Sally Moon, Zimbabwe product manager for New Frontiers Tours, said she believes and hopes there are exciting times ahead for Zimbabwe, and not just Victoria Falls but some of the more off-the-beaten-track destinations, such as Lake Kariba, Mana Pools and Gonarezhou National Park.

Zimbabwe will take center stage in Southern Africa

The positive news surrounding Zimbabwe will also mean that the country will be a worthwhile competitor to other countries in the region, according to industry players.

Cox said the change in leadership combined with the increase in air access and the upsurge of investment across the country means that Zimbabwe is set to take center stage for travel to Southern Africa in 2018.

Murray Gardiner, co-owner and financial director at Giltedge, agreed, saying that several key suppliers recently started moving back into Zimbabwe's tourism hot spots like Hwange National Park, the World Heritage Site of Mana Pools and Lake Kariba.

Said Gardiner: "With the changes on the political front, it's an exciting development as the destination is ready to accept increased tourism numbers so we can sell it confidently to our partners worldwide. Zimbabwe is going to be an excellent alternative to the more expensive lodges in Botswana for price-sensitive clients."

"Let's wait and see if the promises materialize"

However, others have taken a more conservative approach to the news.

Wild Zambezi's Sally Wynn explained that she is hopeful the change will bring better things for tourism in Zimbabwe but added that she first wants to see if the promises materialize. She said: "The new president made a number of promises in his inauguration speech, which, if implemented, could help to turn the country's fortunes around, and there are already signs of an increase in tourism interest.  However, until we see the promises translated into action, and evidence of a genuine improvement of the economic and investment environment in Zimbabwe occurs, then it is difficult to know where we are heading."

Sean Kritzinger, co-owner and general manager at Giltedge, said that although he feels strongly that Mugabe's resignation will have a positive effect on tourism to Zimbabwe, the new regime needs to show that they have the best interests of the population at heart. "If it is more of the same as it was under Mugabe then, no, this will not bring a positive change," he said.

Despite some reservations, Kritzinger is hopeful for the future: "It's a huge opportunity for the new party and government to make changes and improve the lives of millions of Zimbabweans in every sphere of life. Tourism can play a prominent role in bettering a country, as it does in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, for example."

Focus on conservation and reliability, tourism industry urges new government

If there is one thing on which tourism players would like the new government to focus, it's conservation. Said Ndlovu: "I am hoping for a reform in policy, particularly relating to conservation. I hope that we will be able to engage with international conservation bodies and take advantage of new and scientific ways of embracing conservation.

Ndlovu explained that tourism will once again become a source of livelihood for communities around wildlife areas and rules and regulations around it need to protect both the wildlife and the people. He said: "I hope to see incentives for sustainable tourism development, incentives that would be far reaching and attractive enough to Zimbabweans to reinvest in their country and to entice foreign investment."

Cox said her hope is that measures will be put in place to ensure that tourism development is done in a sustainable manner to enhance the conservation and protection of the country's natural habitats and wildlife while promoting growth and improving livelihoods.

For Moon, it is important that the new government focuses on reliable service delivery. She said: "There is a need for consistency when it comes to the Kaza Univisa.  Since its inception the Kaza Univisa [which allows tourists to gain entry to both Zimbabwe and Zambia for a 30-day period] has been somewhat of a hit and miss as it's not always available, and when this is the case it reflects negatively on the industry."

The introduction of a reliable daily scheduled flight between Harare, Kariba, Hwange and Victoria Falls would also be beneficial, said Moon, adding: "Emphasis must be placed on reliable!"


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