The news that tourism figures are up in Victoria Falls arrivals is refreshing and welcome. Can we do more?
I recently spent a week in Florence and also drove through Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and France. You see a lot more when you self-drive, in my view, but also visit the places you choose to see rather than be “trapped” in a package tour. Whatever the case, this visit brought back to mind all other trips I have done but specifically with Zimbabwe and our unemployment situation in mind, especially the vendor situation.
As I stated earlier, tourism figures going up is welcome news. The government gets a little bit more revenue, the hotel chains have a little bit more occupancy and revenue and a few restaurants and vendors get to sell a little bit more product. The largest portion of the cake really goes to government and the shareholders of the hospitality industry. When you come to think about it, a tourist spending a week in a game lodge in Africa benefits far fewer people than a tourist spending the same time in a European city. Here is why.
Europe has arranged its tourism mostly around its history with visitors queueing to visit galleries, cathedrals and places of historical interest. We, on the other hand, have mostly built our history around the “safari” concept. Nothing wrong with that, you put your best and unique foot forward. But again, I ask, can we do more?
In Europe’s medieval villages, a huge tourist attraction, you could easily count at least 200 to 500 jobs per site with little owner operated shops in every medieval village selling everything from souvenirs to ice cream. Literally, every half hour busloads of tourists are pulling in and out of sites which means jobs for drivers and tour guides. The galleries and cathedrals have the option of self visit or guided tours and one encounters different groups avidly following and listening to a guide. The cities themselves have shops with a firm size of three or four people selling pizzas, souvenirs, clothing, jewellery and all manner of merchandise in such a way that you do not have the dominance of one hegemonic brand in a particular product. The high street has its place and the tourists with luxury money to spend are equally at home as they are in the high end hotels. Bed and breakfasts cater for families on a modest budget while hostels are teeming with overseas students. One can book a day Tuscan tour, for example, that includes wine tasting and lunch at private family run vineyards. The family home doubles as a restaurant and home for the daily tourist disembarking from a tour bus whose company has an agreement with said site. In Reunion Island, I remember seeing the concept of “table d’hote” where locals had a room or veranda of their homes dedicated to providing lunch and, more importantly local creole cuisine, to tourists on the island’s many hiking trails. My point is the tourism is built in such a way that it is a whole economy on its own. There is so much we can do! It is not enough to open the borders and let them come.
I am thinking aloud. Is there a strategic, all encompassing tourism policy that not only earns currency for the government but actively creates jobs beyond a few vendors selling crafts outside Gt Zimbabwe hotel and other sites? Is it possible to have dozens of tour buses arriving at Great Zimbabwe each day? How can we make that happen? How can the Shona village at Gt Zimbabwe be much more than just a few huts and a couple of dancers? Are we taking advantage of the history of Zimbabwe’s Jews, the Lemba people, to create guided visits that create jobs and revenue for the locals? Is there a hiking industry that is waiting to be exploited in Chimanimani? Is there an industry that can be created around Zimbabwean cuisine owned and operated by locals after they have received the appropriate training? How best can we attract young North Americans, Chinese, Japanese and European tourists in to making their summer holidays in Zimbabwe? What campaign can we come up with? Can we curate local and international exhibitions that draw audiences as a result of good marketing? Can we cut down on the fist-waving and fighting with imperialists?
My view is that we have unfulfilled potential, that we should include and look beyond wildlife and Victoria Falls to harness this potential, that we could create jobs for thousands of people outside the hotels, that we could slowly create thousands of family operated businesses with firm sizes of 5 or people making hand crafter leather shoes.
Let me make a final point on history. Part of the attraction to Europe is these families or powerful individuals whose sense of destiny or ego demanded that statues or massive buildings be erected as their personal legacy to the cities or Kingdoms they lived in. For starters, beyond Shona sculpture, why do we not commission statues of our former Kings in their full splendour? What has happened to Old Bulawayo? Why is it not a major tourist attraction with Lobengula, Mzilikazi t-shirts galore, assegai’s and shields for sale (I have a beautiful Arab dagger in my house that I bought from Old Jerusalem years ago), tour guides, interactive shows on the battles between the Shona and the Ndebele, the role of cattle, religion, ancestral spirits, the “negotiations” with Rhodes and the same type of attraction replicated elsewhere in the country to suit the history of the different areas?
I believe a well thought out and executed tourism strategy can go a long way in not only helping to revive the economy but also in creating wealth for local families and individuals in a manner that spreads the wealth beyond shareholders of major businesses only. The country begins to breathe a little easier, with renewed confidence and we move forward.