(Last updated Sept 2016)
Should I visit Zimbabwe?
There has been a lot of debate about the role of tourists in Zimbabwe’s politics. Some say that tourists should avoid visiting Zimbabwe to make a statement against Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe. They say that if they visited Zimbabwe they would be supporting an undemocratic regime. I can empathise with this stance. In 2008, the opposition party MDC was incorporated into a coalition government for a time, and improvements were made. In particular, the US Dollar replaced the Zimbabwe Dollar, which ended the severe hyperinflation. In 2013, Zanu-PF gained full control over the country again, and it’s difficult to know where this will lead. Zimbabwean people have had over 10 years of economic and political suffering, and I think tourists – responsible tourists – are much needed.
First off: Visitors do not need to be worried about violence in Zimbabwe. I visited just after the 2013 election results were announced, and had one of the best holidays of my life (link here). I’ve dedicated a full article about Safety in Zimbabwe which you can read here.
“Political statements” are ineffective
For the average tourist, avoiding Zimbabwe to make a “political statement” is a fruitless gesture. It benefits no-one, and the Zimbabwean government has proved to be immune to it. In the years between 1999 and 2007, tourist numbers were at an all-time low, and yet this didn’t seem to have much effect on the government. They were running the country according to their own rules, and tourism wasn’t even a part of the game. In 2002, the EU placed sanctions on key government individuals, but even these have now been lifted on all players except Mugabe. The EU now admits that the sanctions didn’t bring about reform, rather, they provided a propaganda weapon and scapegoat for Mugabe.
They were running the country according to their own rules, and tourism wasn’t even a part of the game.
When tourists visit Zimbabwe, they pay entry fees to Zimbabwe National Parks, and 15% VAT, which go to the government. But if this income decreased due to low tourism numbers, what would happen? The government would still have Zimbabwe’s gold, platinum and diamond reserves – a much bigger piggy bank. Or, they would raise funds by selling Zimbabwe’s elephants and wildlife to foreign zoos. This has already been happening, sadly.
Employment and empowerment
By visiting Zimbabwe instead of avoiding it, you can help sustain the livelihoods of many Zimbabwean people who work in the tourism industry and related businesses: their wages help them to support themselves so that they can send their children to school and support their wider communities. Many tourism companies in Zimbabwe are privately owned which means that a large proportion of money spent at these camps, as well as tip money to serving staff, does not go to the government – it goes to private businesses and the people who work for them.
I’m not saying that tourists should give vast amounts of money as over-generous tips to Zimbabweans in an effort to ‘help’ them – this doesn’t solve any long-term problems – rather, it creates them. There are many well-run Zimbabwean schools, charities and organisations that can put the money to better use (if anyone’s in the giving mood). Tourism helps create employment and sustainable opportunities for people in Zimbabwe.
Tourism has become Zimbabwe’s second largest contributor to Gross Domestic Product after mining, and much of the revenue from tourism directly benefits people within the industry, not just the government. Great Zimbabwe Guide supports the tourism and arts industries, and hopes that their continued growth will help lead the country to economic stability.
Conservation of wildlife and habitats
Zimbabwe has priceless riches in its wildlife and natural areas – some of which are the some of last of their kind in the world. Without people visiting the national parks, the habitats and their animals could become overrun by poachers, trophy hunters, commercial developers and overpopulation. Many safari lodges and tourism companies recognize this and are actively involved in development and conservation projects. Money spent by patrons at the safari lodges contributes to these projects that protect the national parks and precious wildlife.
I’ve seen that without tourism, Zimbabwe’s wildlife and habitats suffer. If there are no tourists, there’s no push to protect the rhino, elephant, lion and other animals that live in Zimbabwe. If there are no tourists, wild places will be transformed into power plants and shopping malls; wild animals will be sold to zoos or worse. The more visitors to the national parks, the more likely the parks and wildlife will be seen as an investment to be protected.
The power of human interaction
Too often, the idea of ‘travel’ is reduced to pithy sayings, or seen as just a business. We forget that travel is often about people – people wanting to expand their understanding of how things work outside their own daily lives. When people from different places are confronted with an alternative idea or way of life, they often challenge and improve themselves for the better. This works both ways – for both the person visiting a new country and for the people in the country being visited. Zimbabwe isn’t a North Korea-style controlled experience – you have the freedom to travel where you want and interact with the people that you meet.
Zimbabwe state media often portrays the West as an enemy, to distract people from the country’s current problems. It presents people in the West as power-hungry, evil colonizers who just want to take all they can get. Yet most people in Zimbabwe I’ve met don’t believe this at all – primarily through their first-hand interactions with people from other walks of life.
I’ve had good conversations with people working in the travel industry about big issues like women’s rights, freedom of speech and good governance – and I have a hunch that these world views have been partly shaped by visitors who have shared their own life stories. Of course, people who see Zimbabwe’s sights shouldn’t be limited to Western visitors: People from Africa and Zimbabwe itself can gain so much from the region.
Every time I’ve gone back to Zimbabwe I’ve been personally challenged, rewarded and invigorated. I’ve surprised myself in the things that I’ve done, I’ve stretched myself, learned more on what life’s really about.
Zimbabwe and its people will teach you many things, both spiritual and mentally, if you let it. A number of friends of mine have visited Zimbabwe for the first time, and upon leaving, they are united in their comments: Zimbabwe changed something that will profoundly affect them, even when they return home.
You’ll meet people who have little material possessions – people whose houses often have water and power cuts, and yet they have more insight and life-purpose than a successful businessman. It’s encounters like these that make a holiday more than just an escape from daily life, if you allow it. They do something inside you that influences your daily life for years to come.