Anyone with half an eye on the news will know the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe is unsettled. If you are thinking about visiting Zimbabwe soon, or have a trip planned, you may be wondering whether it is safe to travel and how your travel experience might be affected. In these situations we always advocate seeking local input and advice, to get a real sense of the feeling on the ground. So we asked Victoria Falls resident Shelley Cox, who works in the tourism industry, to explain what exactly is going on and how this might affect visitors. She sent us this report on January 29, 2019.
here is no denying that Zimbabwe is undergoing transformation, and with that there has been turbulence in some areas of the country. A sudden increase in the price of fuel and a spiralling cost of living sparked a combination of protests and stayaways which began just over two weeks ago. There now remains some ongoing issues and unrest in a few high density areas, particularly around the outskirts of Bulawayo and Harare.
With this in mind, and given the media reports coming out of Zimbabwe, it is understandable that visitors considering travelling to the country may have concerns about their safety, the impact of fuel shortages and supplies, and an overall concern for the people of Zimbabwe.
Is it safe to visit?
For the most part, Zimbabwe’s tourism industry is driven by well-established operators who have navigated the longstanding economic challenges and are used to managing through periods of turbulence and instability.
“Guest safety and their wellbeing has always been foremost in our minds, and as an industry we would automatically alert our guests and trade partners without hesitation if we thought their safety was in anyway compromised,” says Shane White, Chief Marketing Officer of Wild Horizons, a company that has been operating in Victoria Falls for 34 years.
The collaborative ethos that Zimbabwe’s operators has always embraced has meant that visitors are not only under the care of one operator but under the care of the entire industry.
Ross Kennedy from Africa Albida Tourism, which has been operating for 27 years, explains: “We are in constant dialogue with our Minister of Tourism and Environment, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority and with our fellow operators and industry colleagues. We have many eyes and ears on the ground keeping abreast of current affairs and local circumstances that may affect the safety of our guests and our operations.
“As a sector, we have a wide ranging strategy which encompasses guest safety, industry standards and communications, amongst others. The safety of our employees and their families is equally as important to us all.”
Throughout the two weeks of unrest, Victoria Falls and the remote tourist destinations across the country continued to operate without disruption.
Kelly Wood, Marketing Manager of The Hide (Hwange) and Changa Safari Camp (Matusadona), tells me: “Our guests coming from all sides of the country have had no impact to their travel itineraries and transfers have continued as normal.”
“There is a growing realisation amongst the international safari travelling public that what is happening in the high density areas of Harare and Bulawayo is not an indication of what is going on 500km away in Victoria Falls, Hwange and other remote tourism areas across the country,” says Mark Butcher from Imvelo Safari Lodges, which operates camps in Victoria Falls and Hwange.
Sharon Stead, owner of the Amalinda Safari Collection, formed in 1990 and with camps in Matobo Hills and Hwange, confirms that Zimbabwe remains a safe destination for visitors: “We encourage travellers not to panic. While we are cognisant that we are in a period of a transformation, and this process of austerity can lead to concern, we remain a peace-loving nation. Speak to your local contacts and specialists on which areas to avoid. By sticking to normal tourist routes, and avoiding ‘hot spots’, we can assure you that you will not encounter any problems.”
What is it like on the ground?
Currently, it is business as usual in Victoria Falls, Hwange, Matobo Hills and the other more remote destinations. Visitors travelling at the moment would not suspect or feel that there has been any unrest or problems in the main cities.
Here in Victoria Falls, the varied activities run as they always have and there is no sense of any disruption. Visitors continue to enjoy exceptional wildlife encounters on game drives and walking safaris across the country in Hwange, Matobo Hills, Gonarezhou, and Matusadona. Lodges in Mana Pools are currently closed due to scheduled annual seasonal closures.
“None of our guests were affected, due to the remoteness of most tourism facilities, including airports, all of which were unaffected,” says Beks Ndlovu, CEO of African Bush Camps, which operates in Hwange and Mana Pools, with aircraft linking these areas with Victoria Falls. “We have been able to fully service our camps and ensure the service that our guests have come to expect. All of our staff and their families are safe.”
“We are tracking at 60 per cent ahead of where we were this time last year,” says Graham Simmonds, Travel Shop Manager for Wilderness Safaris, which operates 50 camps across eight countries, including six in Zimbabwe, supported by a fleet of aircraft.
“Zimbabwe continues to be the fastest growing region across all of our operations. We believe this is because Zimbabwe continues to deliver not only on service levels, but because its wildlife, landscapes and overall experience continue to be outstanding,” he continues.
A few days ago I met two tourists who have been travelling across Zimbabwe since last Monday, a week after the unrest had started. Dana Utescu, from Romania, and her friend Mrs Polley, from Australia, were on a trip offered by the international operator G Adventures. Their itinerary included Great Zimbabwe, Matobo Hills, Hwange and Victoria Falls.
“We have not experienced any problems at all,” Dana told me. “We were aware of the unrest through social media, but we did not encounter any protests or have any shortages of food or drink throughout our journey.
“I have been travelling since 2006 and have visited 54 countries in that time. No matter which country you travel to, you should always be aware of the culture and respect the people, do your own background research and speak to a specialist who knows the country well. The people here have been the highlight for us and we would love to come back if the opportunity allows. We have loved Zimbabwe and are sad to be leaving tomorrow.”
Fuel shortages and supplies
The tourism industry relies on foreign currency, and companies are able to retain their foreign funds to allow them to operate efficiently and without being badly impacted by shortages of fuel or supplies, as the broader country has been facing over recent months.
“We have a highly skilled procurement team who ensure that we stay ahead of our needs and consumption, to ensure service delivery to our guests and trade partners. We secure our own strategic supplies of fuel, gas and fresh goods to avoid reliance on market or supply vagaries,” says Ross Kennedy from Africa Albida Tourism.
Howard Russell, director and co-owner of Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge, near Gonarezhou National Park in the far south, confirms: “Fuel is still available and being delivered. We try to support local suppliers where we can, so whilst our range of food and drinks depends on what is available locally we supplement this with supplies from South Africa and Mozambique when needed. We remain optimistic that we will continue to operate as normal throughout the year ahead and ensure the guest experience is not impacted in any way.”
“Regardless of the circumstances, reliable tourism operators will have good stocks in place of fuel, food and beverages, in case of any unforeseen challenges,” says Mark Butcher of Imvelo Safari Lodges.
Most tourist establishments across the country accept VISA payments, but it is always advisable to carry some cash as a back-up. Nationwide there are now service stations which hold fuel supplies for tourists and accept foreign currency card payments.
Why tourism matters
I am sometimes asked how one can continue to promote travel to Zimbabwe when there is unrest, and when local lives are being impacted. It is a valid question with a vitally important answer.
Tourism is a major revenue generator for this country, accounting for approximately 9 per cent of total GDP in 2018. The sector directly provides 27,500 jobs and indirectly supports an estimated 69,000 people nationwide. The belief that boycotting a country will somehow force some desired political change has frequently been proven false, while the potential impact for these workers is dramatic.
In Zimbabwe today, a downturn in tourist arrivals would result in a significant loss of livelihoods, and impact further the suffering and poverty for the local population who benefit, directly and indirectly, from tourism.
Add to this the fact that tourism is one of the foundations of conservation, and the longer term risk of a drop in tourism would be the loss of the natural habitats which are so essential.
It is easy to understand the determination of Zimbabwe’s tourism industry to sustain and grow tourism.
We are not by any means oblivious to what is happening in the areas that are being impacted, neither are we hard nor unempathetic. We are, however, focused on ensuring we do our bit to ensure a better Zimbabwe in the future from an economic standpoint, and to protect the livelihoods of our people and the conservation of our wildlife and habitats.
“As an industry, we will continue to dialogue with Government on key issues that will help turn around our economy, especially through tourism, and we are hopeful that there are strategic moves being put in place to stabilise the economy and reinstate the confidence of our people,” says Beks Ndlovu of African Bush Camps.
“Zimbabwe has never needed your support more than it does today. It allows us to continue to serve our industry and contribute to the conservation of our wildlife whilst serving our local communities. The wheels of change are in motion and we are closer to a turnaround than we have been over the last decade.”
John Berry, owner of UK-based tour operator Zambezi Safari and Travel, which has been operating for 24 years and employs consultants on the ground in Harare, Kariba and Victoria Falls, says: “We continue to service well-informed travellers whose presence supports local livelihoods and the ongoing conservation effort in Zimbabwe. Importantly, these visitors invariably return home as constructive and positive ambassadors for Zimbabwe’s safari sector, its hosts and guides. Zimbabwe remains a solid safari destination for us.”
The final word belongs to Luke Brown, of the tour operator Vayeni: “Zimbabweans remain some of the most friendly and outgoing people with a natural affinity for hospitality. If planning a visit, seek advice from established organisations on the ground in Zimbabwe and travel responsibly, as you would in any other country.”
Shelley Cox runs Africa Conservation Travel, a new initiative offering visitors hands-on conservation-related travel experiences in Zimbabwe. She serves in advisory capacities on several boards related to tourism, conservation and habitat protection.