The Sunday News
Rutendo Nyeve , Features Correspondent
WHEN the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the world’s economy tottered almost overnight and strategies to flatten the curve such as lockdowns, social distancing, stay-at-home orders, travel and mobility restrictions resulted in the temporary closure of many hospitality and tourism businesses.
Restaurants were asked to limit their operations to only take-aways. Restrictions placed on travel and stay-at-home orders issued by the authorities led to a sharp decline in hotel occupancies and revenues.
The pandemic came at a time Zimbabwe had broken a 30-year tourist’s arrival record which was set in 1991. It left a number of tourist destinations staggering as much of the industry wobbled under the weight of revenue loss. And some service providers never really recovered but all hope is not lost as strategies are being put in place to resuscitate the industry.
Addressing tourism stakeholders in Bulawayo recently, Minister of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry Nqobizitha Ndlovu said Covid-19 tested the industry heavily and now was the time to assess the loss and strategise on the best way going forward.
“The local tourism industry was tested quite heavily. Tourist receipts fell by 71% in 2020 following a 72% decline in arrival figures. This performance took Zimbabwe 30 years back to 1991 arrivals. To sum it up, the industry suffered varying degrees of losses which include losses in employment, investment, business, revenue, skills and so on,” he said.
He added that the number of foreign tourists visiting Zimbabwe had steadily increased from 2015 to 2018, rising from just over two million visitors in 2015 and peaking to nearly 2,6 million visitors in 2018. The largest source region for overseas tourists to Zimbabwe is Europe which recorded more than 180 000 arrivals in 2019 and accounting for 44% of overseas arrivals in 2019.
However, the reopening process has slowly begun and authorities have started to ease restrictions on both domestic and international travel. The impact of the pandemic on small to medium businesses, on youths and women in business, rural operators and the various segments of the tourism industry across the country were not uniform or the same.
It is in that light that the Ministry of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry through the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) has embarked on a post Covid-19 impact assessment programme to examine and comprehensively assess the impact of the pandemic to the tourism industry.
The impact assessment programme has given stakeholders an opportunity to suggest solutions for quick wins and long-term success of the industry post-Covid-19. The programme is being facilitated by BDO consultants.
BDO Consultants Director Ms Lee-Ann Bac said while there had been a shift in the sector, Zimbabwe was strategically positioned such that if certain strategies were to be employed, the country would achieve quick-wins and long-term success in the tourism industry.
“There is quite a lot that needs to be done because the tourism industry has changed quite significantly not only in Zimbabwe but around the world due to Covid-19. The way tourists like to travel, what they are looking for, the types of experiences they are looking for have changed. They want to be more involved with people, more involved with culture, more involved with heritage and they want open spaces. So, these are all things that Zimbabwe can offer the world and there is an opportunity to provide attractions.
“In the tourism industry we call that ‘experiences’ that is, from the time you book to the time you leave. They are also looking for responsible tourism where they want to know if the money that they are spending is benefiting the people of that country and in particular people at community level. So, this is a huge benefit for Zimbabwe, something that we need to focus our tourism industry on so that it benefits communities. In Zimbabwe tourism needs to create its own space in as far as contributing to the economy is concerned. It’s time to take back to 2018 levels of tourism,” said Ms Bac.
Private players in the tourism industry have however, identified the relaxation of the visa-regime as key in the short to long term recovery of the tourism sector. Visas are an important tool used to control the movement of people across national borders. In line with the Zimbabwe is Open for Business mantra, the country has been encouraged to continuously review the visa regime. In addition, automation of the visa issuance system at ports of entry and the upgrading of e-visa portals can also facilitate smooth issuance of visas.
However, through the National Tourism Recovery and Growth Strategy that Government launched in 2020, Government is also set to expedite the adoption of the Uni-visa System to promote seamless movement of tourists in the region. This will also go a long way in achieving quick-wins in the sector.
Stakeholders have also expressed concern at the numerous roadblocks saying they have a negative impact on self-drive tourism for both domestic and regional travellers. One tour operator, Mr Mkhululi Sibanda said Zimbabwe had an excellent tourism product and Government needed to continue working towards removing barriers inhibiting its growth.
“Zimbabwe has many products including a strong cultural experience, which needs to be complemented by good connectivity, which means more airlines making travel to the destinations cheaper,” he said.
Regardless of the Covid-19-induced setbacks in the tourism industry, the country remains the leading destination of choice for various reasons. These include favourable climatic conditions, extensive areas dedicated to nature and wildlife together with World Heritage Sites and National Monuments.
The country houses the Victoria Falls “hub” location on Southern African circuit while safety and security also come in to promote the destination. Rich culture and heritage, experienced, well-trained, knowledgeable tourism sector, welcoming and friendly people all adds to the endless list of destination Zimbabwe.