Zimbabwe Tourism puts on the impossible

At 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday in the city center of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, hundreds of young Zimbabweans chanted as they marched towards the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair grounds to draw attention to the city’s current show on display – the Sanganai World Travel and Tourism Africa Fair, Zimbabwe’s travel and tourism world exhibition.

Give it to the Zimbabweans for being patient and being brazen. Amid the current political climate their country is in, they have managed to stage the travel trade show, which is scheduled to go on until Saturday, October 19, 2008.

The show is being held for the first time in Bulawayo, which is some three hours away from Harare, where previous editions of the international tradeshow have been held. The show is being organized by the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority and the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair Company.

The aim of the international tradeshow is to provide the country the opportunity to showcase its tourism facilities. Optimistic about the impact of the fair, an exhibitor told the local paper, Chronicle: “We are ready to show the world what Zimbabwe offers in terms of tourism, and we hope that this will be a great success.”

More importantly, Zimbabwe’s tourism industry is trying to maximize the opportunity of showing international buyers what the country has in competing for tourists when the FIFA World Soccer Cup arrives in South Africa in 2010.

According to the official exhibition program, a press conference was supposed to have occurred at 9:00 a.m. yesterday, but the only communication the visiting press has received with government officials is what was written in the Chronicle newspaper.

“This [the Sanganai] is going to be a preview of what Zimbabwe and the whole of the Southern African region has in terms of tourism,” Tourism and Environment Minister Francis Nhema was quoted as saying. “This will give us the chance to say, look this is what you can expect come 2010.”

According to the ZTA, some 750 international exhibitors, buyers, sellers and journalists are expected to attend the travel fair.

Bulawayo is Zimbabwe’s industrial city and is now being pushed as a tourism destination by Zimbabwe’s tourism officials. However, there are many challenges to achieving this goal, as the city’s current tourism infrastructure is not up to par with international standards in terms of quality and quantity of hotels that are available for tourists. There are no five-star hotels just yet.

Also, tourists should expect slow Internet connectivity, erratic cell phone coverage (if at all available), and unstable electricity. At the Crest Churchill Hotel, there were at least two occurrences of a power outage on Wednesday, both times, lasting at least two hours. When asked, the front-desk attendant simply shrugged his shoulder and said, “Let’s cross our fingers that it comes back soon.”

To The Crest Churchill’s advantage, they have a back-up generator to use in the event of a power outage. For tourists, the light switch is at least working. The downside is that the TV, bedside lamplight and power plug-ins aren’t working. So forget charging your mobile phones, laptops, cameras and whatever other devices you need to charge. It becomes compulsory to adapt.

In addition, tourists should bring cash in US dollars; leave their credit cards behind because they are not accepted in the country at the moment.

That said, the show is a clear sign that Zimbabwe tourism is very much still active and alive at least in certain parts of the country despite the outsider perception that the country is spiraling out of control. Case in point: The Kingdom Hotel. Located in Zimbabwe’s tourism capital, Victoria Falls, The Kingdom Hotel by every standard is a five-star hotel. This is not only evident from the structure itself but the service and facilities it offers. No matter what the conditions outside the premises may be, the fact remains the hotel is conducting business as usual.

However, the grim fact remains that tourism is on the decline. The numbers of tourists visiting Victoria Falls have steadily been on the decline since the late ‘90s. The Kingdom is operating on the average of 30 percent occupancy, which, according to The Kingdom Hotel staff, is representative of the whole Victoria Falls.

As for Tourism Minister Nhema himself, the latest word is that he is ready to face the international press, comprised mostly of Nigerians, sometime on Thursday morning.

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