By Daniel Chigundu
DESPITE the super-hyped talk about religious tourism booming in Zimbabwe in the last six years, the situation on the ground paints a picture that the program has failed dismally.
Religious tourism also referred to as Faith-based travel in other jurisdictions includes a wide variety of activities that range from pilgrimages, missionary work, faith-based tours, church services and conferences among many other related events.
Zimbabwe despite being a Christian dominated country, has failed to attract meaningful Christian conferences and programs worthy of talking about in terms of tourism receipts as has been done by such countries as South Africa.
Factors why Zimbabwe has failed
1-Religious tourism is not a sector and there are no visible structures that have been set with a view to promoting it.
2-Churches themselves as the key stakeholder are not aware of the program and the policy and to make matter worse there is no incentive that churches are set to get out of it and therefore there is no buy-in.
3- There are no facilities in Zimbabwe to facilitate or even attract international church conferences and services as is the situation in other countries.
4-Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) is not proactive but has rather taken a back seat waiting for churches to lure conferences for themselves and yet they are the marketing arm of tourism in Zimbabwe. In previous interviews, ZTA chief executive Dr Karikoga Kaseke said they take a back seat because they don’t want to be accused of interfering in church programs.
5-The Ministry of Tourism and Hospitality Industry is the lead culprit as it has failed to pronounce effectively and clearly the Religious Tourism Policy and have been found wanting when it comes to implementation as they have limited themselves to mainly focus on local events such as Prophet Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa weekly church services in Waterfalls and at City Sports Centre respectively, events which do not add to tourism receipts.
Religious tourism if effectively implemented and marketed has the potential to attract both local and international tourists as is currently happening in South Africa where for example Christ Embassy leader Pastor Chris with a well-known huge following has been holding his various meetings there.
Pastor Chris holds the International School of Ministers, Higher Life Conference, Night of Bliss, Finance Convention, Leaders and Partners Conference and Healing School among other programs in South Africa and these programs attract attendance from across the world.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation 2015 Barometer, religious tourism moves over 300 million people out of the 1.2 billion tourists across the globe annually.
Promotion of religious tourism is said to have started between 2006 and 2011 through the World Religious Travel Association (WRTA).
WRTA’s mission was to promote religious tourism in all its forms and provide education and information for better travelling all over the world; the association did not only focus on direct participants but also on institutions.
The association hosted three World Religious Travel Expos attracting organizations and professionals from more than 30 countries on six continents. The association’s members and partners included travel agents, tour operators, travel wholesalers, ground/incoming operators, cruise lines, destinations, suppliers, trade associations, religious organizations, and group planners.
What is lacking in Zimbabwe?
Zimbabwe does not have adequate facilities to attract international church conferences and this is an investment opportunity which the private sector and government should snap up especially at such a time as this where some Chinese investors are reportedly looking for opportunities in the tourism sector.
We can boast of having the National Sports Stadium, Rufaro Stadium and City Sports Centre, but these do not meet the standard of most international conferences that the likes of Pastor Chris, TB Joshua and Benny Hinn normally host.
There is a need for such facilities as the Ticketpro Dome (previously known as the Coca-Cola Dome) in Johannesburg, South Africa, an indoor facility with a seating capacity of around 20 000.
United Kingdom has the O2 Arena with a seating 20 000 capacity and the Manchester Arena with 21 000 seating capacity.
Our Harare International Conference Centre is a good attempt but with its 4500 seats falls too short and even the Great Indaba at Crowne Plaza with its 250 seating capacity doesn’t make the minimum requirement.
Churches such as Zion Christian Church, Zaoga Forward in Faith, Prophetic Healing and Deliverance Ministries and Jehovah’s Witnesses and a few others should be recommended as they have tried to hold their regional and international meetings in the country but if we are to get something meaningful from religious tourism we need to do more as a country.