Is Zimbabwe ready for the return of tourists?

Zimbabwe ArticleWritten by: Paddington Tucker

Over the past ten years tourism to Zimbabwe has been limited to the Victoria Falls, which has had to market itself as a tourism oasis within a desert. The word Zimbabwe has been demonized by the international media – mention the name of the country in Europe and images of farm invasions, hyperinflation, cholera, and political violence spring to mind. That such a beautiful country’s reputation is so tarnished makes the job for us Zimbabwe afi-cionados extremely difficult, even if we know that the reality is a far cry from the image presented in the media.

Ah, but green shoots are sprouting indeed. Since the power-sharing deal with Morgan Tsvangirai, and the discontinuation of the Zimbabwe Dollar, a new wave of optimism is sweeping the country: Zimbabwe is returning to the international fold, Zimbabwe is becoming a normal country again. In tourism terms this is also showing: a new buzz has descended on the Zimbabwean stand at international tourism exhibitions; South Africans are beginning to come across the border in numbers; major wholesalers such as Thompsons and Private Safaris have begun to promote tours in the Zimbabwean hinterland to their overseas clients.

Travel professionals who operated in the 1980s and early 1990s recall with great nostalgia how tourism then flourished. Those of us who joined the travel industry after 2000 can be forgiven for not appreciating how sophisticated Zimbabwe – which means House of Stone – actually is. The country has the highest rate of literacy, the most educated workforce and one of the most developed infrastructures in the continent. In its heyday it was sold primarily as a self-drive destination. The roads were excellent, the scenery diverse, and the major areas of interest are all within three hours or so of each other.

In January 2010, I visited Zimbabwe to see for myself if it would work as a self-drive destination for the average European tourist today. I could have flown to Harare and hired a car there, but I opted to drive from Johannesburg and to cross the border at Beitbridge. For this I needed special permission from Europcar, who do not normally allow their cars into Zimbabwe, because of the high costs of retrieval in the event of breakdown (although please contact me if you require special permission for your clients). Europcar in South Africa is not at present operationally connected to the Europcar franchise in Zimbabwe. This will surely change if things continue to look up.

The border experience was the most challenging part of the trip, but not by any means a necessity for tourists, who can pick up a car at Harare. Beitbridge is not – and, I would wager, never was – a pleasant place. It is low lying, hot, run down, and the only place in my trip that I encountered beggars. The authorities are not tourist-friendly, but nor are they corrupt. Border facilitation touts will offer their services for a fee, but the key is to be prepared and know in advance the necessary procedures, and then you won’t need them.

You must ask any official for a gate pass which has to be stamped by each relative authority – the toll for the bridge across the Limpopo river (R70); immigration (the visa costs $30 for most European nationals, $55 for British passport holders); third party insurance for the car (R200); a combined fee of so-called road tax and carbon tax (R220 – depending on the size of the car engine); and a stamp for customs. Once the gate pass is filled in with stamps you can proceed. African Sun’s Holiday Inn Express Beitbridge can provide a border support service for clients staying that their hotel, and I would strongly advise any tour operator to make use of this service.

The Holiday Inn Express at Beitbridge was very welcome after the time spent at the border (about two and a half hours). As with all the hotels I experienced in Zimbabwe, the staff are friendly and well-trained, and the food delicious. Zimbabwe is fortunate to be isolated from globalised farming methods, meaning that the hotels source locally and organically grown products. The vegetables were consistently brimming with flavour; and Zimbabwean beef has long been regarded as the best in the world, and I would not challenge that statement.

The next day I drove on towards Masvingo, about 300km to the north. The first 150km consisted of low-lying sparsely-populated bush interspersed with other-worldly baobab trees. Gradually the road rises with views of dramatic escarpment and vast boulders scattered on the veld, and with that the ubiquitous beehive hut settlements pop up as the climate becomes more hospitable. Masvingo, formerly known as Fort Victoria, was my first impression of a Zimbabwean town. It is bustling; the shops are full; petrol stations abound, as they do throughout the country. There was nothing to suggest I was in a pariah state, no sinister police or army presence, no undue attention from locals, no obvious sign of poverty. I could have been in any Southern African town.

Masvingo lies 25 km from the original ‘House of Stone’ after which the country is named. Second to the Egyptian pyramids the Great Zimbabwe Ruins are the largest stone structure on the African continent. They are the remains of a city, which was the centre of a mysterious civilisation that ruled Southern Africa from approximately 1100-1500. The ruins are utterly intriguing and entrancing. The city was built with fired stones laid on top of each other with no mortar. Because no roof was ever intended, there was no need to build in straight lines, thus creating an edifice entirely in harmony with nature. The ruins must have been inhabited by an enlightened people: no weapons were discovered except those used for hunting. A society without the need for violence to keep order suggests some sort of matriarchal state. Indeed the most striking ruin is the Great Enclosure, home to the Alpha Queen, whose centre piece is a ten-metre high solid conical tower, probably some sort of celebration of female fertility. The greatest clue to the society’s religion are the soapstone birds – now in the museum – which were originally discovered facing east in the ritual chamber on the hill where the king dwelled. These eerie, melancholy birds, which now grace Zimbabwe’s coat of arms, are said to be intermediaries between the heavens and earth.

To visit the ruins takes at least half a day as there is just so much to see and take in. I cannot state enough how much of a thrill it is to take in a site of such significance and beauty without the crowds, hamburger stalls, tacky souvenirs which we are accustomed to when we visit other extraordinary historical sites of the world.

There are three luxury hotels in the vicinity of the ruins. African Sun’s Great Zimbabwe Hotel is the only place to stay within walking distance (about 400m) from the ruins. The hotel is architecturally inspired by the ruins themselves and boasts pictures of its most famous guests, including Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II with Prince Philip, and Nelson Mandela.

The ruins, situated right in the centre of the country, are a must-see for any itinerary to Zimbabwe. But there are other attractions in the area to make a 2-3 night stay here feasible. Lake Kyle, the second largest dam in Zimbabwe after Kariba, is a few minutes’ drive away: in high season scenic boat cruises, and fishing trips can be arranged (I sampled the local bream in the hotel restaurant). The Great Zimbabwe Hotel arranged a drive to Lake Kyle Game Park, where we saw black and white rhino, hippo and a healthy selection of plain’s game. Another little known fact about Zimbabwe is that as well as the more famous game reserves such as Hwange and the Mana Pools, there are many smaller game reserves scattered across the country.

From Masvingo it was another 300km to the capital on roads where I mainly drove at 120km/hour +. The roads began to deteriorate within a 30km radius of Harare due to heavy use, but there were signs of road works in process. The police stopped me from time to time at roadblocks, but each time with a smile and a few friendly words I was sent on my way.

Harare – the One who Does not Sleep – is an African city like any other with rich suburbs, a frenetic downtown area, and poor townships. I stayed at African Sun’s Crowne Plaza Monomotapa – a stylish African hotel in the centre of the city constructed in the shape of an ox-bow lake. For most tourists Harare is likely to be a one night stop to acclimatize and refresh themselves after a long-haul flight. But I would recommend to anyone that they sample Harare’s nightlife. Where there are oppressive regimes, there is a lively music scene. Artists are the vanguard of the movement for change.

I returned to South Africa via Matabeleland – Bulawayo, the second city, and the Matopos. The Matopos are a series of granite hills interspersed with vast clusters of boulders precariously positioned on top of each other. This was for Cecil John Rhodes the most special spot in the world and he arranged to be buried here. The Matopos are roughly half way between Great Zimbabwe and Hwange Game Reserve on the way to Victoria Falls, and a natural stop off point for any tour. I stayed at Camp Amalinda, an exquisitely appointed upmarket lodge, the rooms being fashioned out of the natural boulders.

So is Zimbabwe ready for tourists? Of course it is. It is ready for tour series; it is ready for selfdrive tourists. It is what the trendy travel professionals call an ‘experiential’ destination with edge, charm and colour. It is an exclusive destination because there are so few tourists. It is an exceptionally safe destination. It has some of the best game experiences in Africa in Hwange and Mana Pools, it has one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World in the Victoria Falls, it has a fresh water sea in Lake Kariba; it has mountains and fantastical rock formations, it has in the Great Zimbabwe Ruins one of the secrets of a lost civilisation. It is Zimbabwe’s time again.

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