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Travel

Being a Tourist in Zimbabwe Is a Pretty Lonely Experience

Which is a shame for Mugabe, considering he's relying on tourism to boost the country's economy.

by Ben Woodstock
08 May 2014, 6:00am

A fifty-trillion Zimbabwean dollar note and the approximate amount of produce it would have bought at the height of hyper-inflation in the 2000s.

You rarely see package holidays to Zimbabwe advertised in high street travel agencies. I'm guessing that has something to do with the country's history of genocide and violent political repression – two things tourist boards tend to steer away from – but, whatever the reason (and despite its beautiful wildlife, people, plains and waterfalls), it doesn't seem to be at the top of many getaway bucket lists. 

However, having read a lot of stuff over the past 12 months about the country finally "turning a corner" – and focusing on tourism to help boost its wheezing economy – I thought I'd pay Zimbabwe a visit, dropping in on a family friend who lives on the outskirts of Harare, to see whether it's anywhere near ready to top Teen Tatler's list of the The Hottest Spots to Vacay in 2015.

Downtown Harare can basically be defined by its asphalt, its office towers and its suited city boys; in that respect, its not too dissimilar to the financial districts of the West. It's completely dead at night, but then so is Canary Wharf – unless your idea of a Big One is drinking warm tinnies while basking in the fluorescent glow of a dozen closed Itsus.

It's the same story back at the hotel, with hardly anyone around but the porter, who spent the majority of his time slouching against the entrance, bored out of his mind – understandably, considering I hardly saw anybody else enter the hotel the entire time I was there. In the bar, it was just me and the barman, spending as long as we could maintaining an awkward silence before I left for bed.

The next morning, I walked through township markets overflowing with cheap, locally-made crafts. The stallholders are desperate for tourist money, but currently don't have a lot of local customers, let alone foreign ones. I splashed out on a couple of mini bongos and hand-carved animals, conveniently managing to pay for them without being forced to push a wheelbarrow full of devalued banknotes around.

The economic collapse following 2000's farm seizures caused hyperinflation that surged to 231,000,000 percent, causing the majority of the population to become impoverished trillionaires overnight. However, things have stabilised somewhat since the country abandoned its own currency and started using foreign money – usually American dollars.

Graffiti in support of ZANU-PF, Robert Mugabe's party.

It’s no suprise that things were a bit lonely; hotel bed occupancy remains stagnant, at about 35 percent, and overall visitor figures aren’t even a third of the 1.5 million arriving in Zim’s 1990s heyday, when the country sustained a healthy tourism industry that was later decimated by Mugabe’s infamous land redistribution programme and the political turmoil that followed.  

Things aren't much better for tourists nowadays; at one point I tried to photograph some market stalls – a pretty normal thing to do, I'd say – and got daggers from a cop. Mind you, at least I didn’t get arrested, which could have happened if I had tried to photograph a government building. 

Bored of the monastery-like hotel bar, I hired a car and hit the road with my buddy, bound for a game reserve to look at some elephants. The highways are mostly barren, but you never get far before being halted by a police roadblock and asked for documentation, before having your vehicle circled by an officious – often very young – officer checking all is “in order”. It’s nice that they’re so concerned, but the fistfuls of dollars I saw some officers openly counting as we drove past made me question whether my safety was their primary interest.

One day during my visit we were stopped three times while driving from a Harare suburb to the city centre. Somehow we escaped having to fork out any cash.

Robert Mugabe on the wall of a hotel.

One of the worst things about Harare is seeing Robert Mugabe’s face all over the place, usually stuck in a frame and hung on the wall of a bar or a hotel reception. Each town I visited had a Robert Mugabe Street or Avenue as a central thoroughfare. To make derogatory comments about him is a criminal offence.

And that's a shame, because there’s plenty of bad stuff to say. For instance, he once said that homosexuals are “worse than dogs". He is responsible for the slaughter of thousands of civilians in Matabeleland. Last month – not long after his Finance and Economic Development Minister announced that Zimbabwe's external debt stands at around £3.5 billion – he used £9.44 million of taxpayers’ funds for his 90th birthday bash, daughter’s wedding and to commission giant statues of himself, built in North Korea, to commemorate his 34-year rule.

If you see Mugabe’s 12-vehicle motorcade approaching, you best keep well clear, or just stop driving altogether – it’s an offence not to, and guards will readily beat you for stopping in the wrong place or not soon enough. In one fortnight in 2012, the motorcade claimed three lives in three separate collisions. I’m not sure if they’d make an exception for tourists, but it's probably not worth trying to find out.

Hwange

In Hwange, Zimbabwe’s biggest national park, the number of safari camps dwindled throughout the noughties without guests to support them. So too did the wildlife (without conservation investment), particularly tusked animals, ravaged by poachers when food and money were at their scarcest.

When I arrived there were magnificent beasts everywhere, from wandering giraffes to lumbering elephants – a few too many now, said my guide. While the animal stocks have replenished, he explained, visitor numbers still aren’t enough to sustain the business. And I believed him; it was just me, my friend and him in the jeep, maintaining stilted conversation while we watched the wildlife graze. There were no other guests booked in until the following week.

It’s obvious why Zimbabwe is trying to attract tourists again: it’s short of cash, and it has the world’s largest waterfall, which – looking at the 22 million people who visit Niagara Falls every year – is a pretty good thing to have on your side when you want to sell overpriced Fanta to people wearing bum-bags.

I felt slightly uncomfortable that my visa fee went to Mugabe’s regime. Mind you, most of the money I spent once I got there went to the locals, so at least the cash you're handing over once you're through the airport isn't going towards furthering his tyrannical rule. You can make your own mind up about whether you want to visit or not – but hey, a bunch of Western governments lifted their travel warnings back in 2009, so at least you're now not in imminent danger if you do!

More stories from Zimbabwe:

Zimbabwe Has Its Own Anti-Mugabe Whistleblower

How the Hell Did Zimbabwe End Up with Just $217 In the Bank?

Robert Mugabe Won the Zimbabwe Elections, Again