Tourism has been identified as one of the key pillars for economic revival together with agriculture and mining by the Emmerson Mnangagwa government-the new dispensation since November 2017.
Seasoned politician and economist Tapiwa Mashakada also concurred with the view adding that it was actually the country’s lowest hanging fruit with quick wins.
However, unlike in other countries, tourism in Zimbabwe is hugely dependent on foreign tourists especially from Europe, America and other regions.
Zimbabwe through the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) was in the past two years making concerted efforts to try and lure more of tourists from Asia, especially from China.
China was identified as the key marketing destination owing to its status as the world largest contributor of outbound tourism and according to the UNWTO the status was going to remain so for a number of years and that the number of contributions will also increase.
Not only was China named the biggest contributor to tourists but also as the biggest spenders in the tourism sector at the same time.
In a bid to benefit from this promise, ZTA which is tasked with marketing the country’s tourism destinations made efforts to open a marketing office as well as strike some deals in a bid to lure Chinese tourism.
Some of the efforts include conducting a “China Ready Program” which saw players in the tourism sector attending classes to understand the Chinese tourists.
There was a deal with Touch Road International Holdings to bring about 350 Chinese tourists to Zimbabwe every month among others and the same company had also proposed to convert Charter House into a 5-Star hotel.
There were efforts also made at various travel shows such as the famous ITB in Germany, the Indaba in South Africa among others and at these events foreign tourists expressed interest in visiting the country and the future looked bright for the sector.
However, due to the unprecedented challenges brought about by Coronavirus (COVID-19), all that bright future could turn dark and all efforts could go to waste and there is nothing much that ZTA and its players can do about it because of its a global challenge.
Zimbabwe’s main tourist attraction centre the Victoria Falls is now a pale shadow of its glory as airlines have cancelled flights and countries including Zimbabwe have closed down borders to visitors meaning no one will come in the near future.
Even the often ignored local tourists will not visit anytime soon owing to measures that have been put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19 and these measures include social distancing and total lockdown.
In its last flight to Victoria Falls from Harare on the 25th of March, Air Zimbabwe carried about 14 passengers and left Victoria Falls with only 9 passengers a development which forced them to cancel the flights.
Fastjet faced the same consequence and parked their planes.
Hotels have been left without occupants, workers have been forced to go on leave since there is no one to serve at the moment or in the near future.
Hotels are saddled with debts for the refurbishments they have undertaken to spruce the outlook of their facilities and the sector which had been touted as the key pillar for economic revival is hanging by a thread for survival.
If the situation goes for about 3 months as it is the hospitality industry in Zimbabwe will crush never to rise again or will need more than 5 years to recover.
What must be noted is that the death of the tourism sector will also take along with it the agriculture sector especially those who produce horticulture products, bread industry and even the beverage manufacturers like Delta Corporation will also suffer.
Even if COVID-19 was to be contained in a few months time it will still take time to lure tourists as people will still be counting their losses from the pandemic considering that business is closed and people in the certain sector have been forced to take pay cuts so no one will easily afford a holiday.
The best bet for Zimbabwe tourism sector will be the local tourists but again these are people who have been ignored for a long time by the ZTA who only paid attention to foreign tourists.
Besides being ignored by ZTA, not many locals can afford the exorbitant fees charged by hotels and tourism players in the country, even foreign tourists have also complained hence they choose to stay in neighbouring countries when they come to visit Victoria Falls.
So reviving the tourist sector in Zimbabwe, the government might need to come up with deliberate efforts to give the sector a heads start and this can include tax breaks, financial stimulus and promotion domestic tourism through awarding civil servants state-assisted travel packages among other things.
However, Harare faces financial challenges of its own and it is expected that the challenge will only get bigger as tax projects will not be met due to the lockdown and not many countries will be giving financial aid since COVID-19 has affected almost all the countries in the world.
Hope for Zimbabwe might come from UNWTO whose secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili announced that they have since launched an innovation challenge for people to come up with solutions that can help the tourism sector to recover from COVID-19 impact.
Pololikashvili said the response from the innovation challenge must be strong and united.
“Tourism is the sector that has been hit the hardest by COVID-19. Our response needs to be strong and united. We also need to embrace innovation. I call on all entrepreneurs and innovators with ideas that are developed and ready to be put into action to share them with us.
“In particular, we want to hear ideas that will help communities recover from this crisis, economically and socially, as well as ideas that can contribute to the public health response,” he said.
Dubbed the “Healing Solutions” the challenge is global call entrepreneurs and innovators to submit ideas that can help the tourism sector mitigate the impact and kickstart recovery efforts.
According to UNWTO, the challenge is aimed at finding ideas that can make a difference right away for destinations, for businesses and for public health efforts.
Participants should be able to demonstrate how their ideas can help tourism in its response to COVID-19. Ideas must also have been piloted and be ready to scale-up, with a business plan in place and the potential to be implemented in several countries.