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Travel

Being a Tourist in Zimbabwe Is a Pretty Lonely Experience

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

by Ben Woodstock
May 8 2014, 6:00am

A 50-trillion Zimbabwean dollar note and the approximate amount of produce it would have bought at the height of hyperinflation in the 2000s

You rarely see travel agencies advertising package holidays to Zimbabwe. 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 might be, it doesn't seem to be at the top of many getaway bucket lists, despite its beautiful wildlife, people, plains, and waterfalls.

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 ready to top the Travel Channel's "Top 10 Vacation Spots."

Downtown Harare can basically be defined by its asphalt, office towers, and 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 Wall Street.

It's the same story back at the hotel, with hardly anyone around but the doorman, 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 the bartender and I, 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 proprietors are desperate for tourist money but currently don't have a lot of local customers, let alone foreign ones. I splurged on a couple of mini bongos and hand-carved animals, conveniently managing to pay for them without having to haul a wheelbarrow's worth 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. But things have stabilized somewhat since the country abandoned its own currency and started using foreign money—usually American dollars.

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

It’s no surprise 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 President Robert Mugabe’s infamous land-redistribution program and the political turmoil that followed.  

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, asked for documentation, and having your vehicle circled by an officious—often very young—officer checking that 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. That said, I was never asked to fork out any cash on my visit, so perhaps they just enjoy counting their legally earned money on the side of the road.

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 hotel lobby. Each town I visited had a Robert Mugabe Street or Avenue as a central thoroughfare. To make derogatory comments about him is a criminal offense.

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 $6 billion—he used almost $16 million of taxpayers’ funds for his 90th birthday bash, for his 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 offense 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 myself, my friend, and my guide in the jeep, maintaining stilted conversation while we watched the wildlife graze. There were no other guests booked 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 soft drinks to people wearing fanny packs.

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 toward 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 not in imminent danger if you do!

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