Cash shortages choking tourism

Acting ZTA CEO Givemore Chidzidzi

ZIMBABWE Independent deputy editor Faith Zaba (FZ) last week attended the 2019 Africa Tourism Leadership Forum and awards at the Durban International Convention Centre (ICC) whose theme was “Stimulating intra-Africa Travel Through Thought Leadership”. Key on the agenda of the meeting attended by Africa travel and tourism CEOs was how Africa could boost the meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (MICE) industries.

In South Africa, the Durban ICC this year contributed R6,39 billion (US$462 million) to the country’s Gross Domestic Product and R46 billion (US$3,08 billion) in the last 13 years, while the Cape Town ICC contributed R4,5 billion (US$301,3 million) and R40 billion (US$2,68 billion) in 15 years.

Zaba spoke to the acting Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) CE, Givemore Chidzidzi (GC), on the potential of MICE industries in Zimbabwe, challenges his organisation is facing in marketing the country, how the recent political disturbances have impacted the tourism sector, among other issues.

Below are excerpts of the interview:
FZ: You can start off by telling us what have been some of the challenges that ZTA has been facing in view of the economic situation in the country?
GC: ZTA is not spared from the negative impact of current economic situations. The ZTA relies on some allocation from government and the 2% levy. So, if tourism is reducing, it means the 2% will be 2% of a reducing figure. So, we are always finding ourselves short of resources and the bulk of our expenditure as ZTA is foreign currency based. We are supposed to be marketing Zimbabwe as a destination in the external markets predominantly because that is where the wealth comes from.
Domestic tourism is fine, fair and good. It is all about circulating the money that we have in the country but if we really want to see growth, we need an injection of revenue coming from outside the economy and it comes through tourism. We have to go and stimulate the markets, let them want to come to Zimbabwe, and now that is no mean fit. Now, here is the challenge, we get a budget allocation in local currency.
FZ: Besides the foreign currency constraints what other problems are you facing, finance wise?
GC: The biggest challenge we have is the recent developments in our economy where we have seen the buying power of our local currency being eroded. With the money that you have, you can now only get 10%. We celebrated last year when we got a $5,5 million budget allocation from government. It is actually the highest nominal figure that we have received from government as a budget allocation in years, but then, in no time, that money has been reduced to $550 000 and we have got a budget that is a lot higher than that.
FZ: What is your budget?
GC: Our budget as ZTA, as we have always said in the past, has been between US$20 and US$25million.
FZ: What does it mean in terms of marketing, because even when we were in the meetings there was already a lot of talk that as Africa we are not doing enough to market ourselves?
GC: I am happy that this is an African forum that has over 25 countries participating here and they are all facing the same challenges implying that we are not doing enough and we are not … I think the call is upon governments to allocate more resources for tourism marketing. The foreign currency is there to be collected, but you don’t just collect it without investing anything.
If we look at successful destinations that have received a lot of value for their tourism, they also spend a lot. We are here in South Africa and you just see how much South Africa invests in their tourism. We are not getting enough resources for us to change the narrative out in the markets.
FZ: In terms of your collaboration, are you working with the private sector?
GC: The private sector tries to come in like when we go out to do some international marketing. We have got partnerships in the private sector. In our case, we have got a situation in Zimbabwe where we would want to encourage other sectors of the economy to realise that there is potential for the economy in tourism.
Tourism is the only industry in Zimbabwe that is bringing in foreign currency where we can be confident that foreign currency comes. So, every sector of the economy should actually be concerned about how the Zimbabwe destination is marketed and they need to put their hand where their money is. Everyone across all sectors has to play their part to make sure that tourism happens and it happens successfully, starting from the port of entry, right across through all sectors going to the rail, banking, security sector and so on; everyone in all those sectors should realise that we want our tourism to happen.
FZ: Tourism is a low-hanging fruit in which we need to invest. Does everyone appreciate the potential it has?
GC: I like the tone where everyone talks about tourism being a low-hanging fruit, but we have always said as ZTA no matter how low the fruit hangs there is need for an effort on the part of whoever wants to enjoy the fruit. If it is hanging and you are not taking it, then it is useless. So, we need to do basics and minimal things to make sure we leverage and benefit from a low hanging fruit. We are talking about general infrastructure and attracting airlines.
The airport is just but a gate to the country so if you think that the airport is the one that is going to be attracting airlines and attracting people to come to your country, then we have lost the plot. It must be everyone’s business to make sure that the airlines come in. So, if we want Zimbabwe to be connected to Europe directly, it should not be the sole responsibility of the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (Caaz).
FZ: You spoke about demonstrations. How have these impacted on the industry?
GC: Unfortunately, tourism quickly gets a beating from all of that. If it is a disease outbreak, tourism suffers very quickly because in tourism you are dealing with the most sensitive commodity — you are dealing with people. The moment they sense a bit of insecurity, they will not come and they will run away.
Starting from towards the end of last year and the beginning of the year and just recently, those disturbances have actually resulted in a knock on our tourism. It might not be easily seen, but we know it is there because when you start seeing people checking out from hotels in the CBD, and people who were scheduled to come rescheduling their travel and then the governments from our source markets reacting by issuing travel warnings, all our efforts and achievements are thrown out of the window and the investment would be rendered useless.
Brand Zimbabwe is seriously under attack. The image issue is very difficult to redress. Over the years, we have been trying to do our image transformation in programmes of destination and then it took a few hours in one morning and it was all undone. Now we have to start all over again.
FZ: So what can you do?
GC: We can only step up our efforts, but I think what it needs now is for people to seriously consider their actions. As a nation we need to solve our problems and sort out our issues without affecting other things. The money problems and that it is not adequate will always be there, but they will not be solved by conflicts and confrontations which end up making the situation worse.
So, as tourism industry, when we start seeing cancellations and we start seeing airline crews marooned in a hotel in town because of these skirmishes. Obviously, it doesn’t look good for tourism.
FZ: What other problems are deterring tourists from visiting Zimbabwe?
GC: Some foreign visitors have been failing to access cash. They carry just credit cards and they need cash, but they can’t access it! They want to use the card but the card cannot be used.
So, we are engaging for people to use their plastic money. There is no reason why a person coming from wherever in the world cannot swipe a visa card even in a supermarket. We have talked about this because we want it to go as far down as even to those guys in the flea market.
FZ: What about the bureaux?
GC: Right now, obviously, they are collecting cash so they want cash only. You cannot go and swipe a card at a bureau de change, but when you go to Europe or even here in South Africa you can just go to a bureau de change and swipe and they give you cash.
But in Zimbabwe the bureaux de change are not yet that developed. They are still in a cash economy mentality. We need to move away from this cash economy mentality. We have related this to the relevant authorities. The good thing about swiping is that the money goes into the banking system. Cash paid doesn’t necessarily go into the system.
FZ: There was a lot of talk about the MICE industries, where do we stand in Zimbabwe?
GC: Certain fundamentals have to be in place — the infrastructure itself, the support services, amenities have to be in place for business tourism is to even happen.
FZ: What percentage is MICE contributing to the GDP?
GC: We have not done a scientific study as yet because it is something that we have just started. We have just established our convention national bureau, which is still in its infancy. We are trying develop that sector, getting the MICE specialists, the conference organisers and venues registered and accounted for.
FZ: What about in terms of infrastructure?
GC: In terms of MICE infrastructure, we are not there yet. We have the Harare International Conference Centre, which is a 1985 product. In 1985, it was a state-of-the-art, but time has gone and there are new trends.
The 1985 HICC will not meet the 2020 requirements. We need to invest in that area. We also have our exhibition centres like the Harare Agricultural Showgrounds and the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair grounds, which need to start operating like tourism business. Zimbabweans must now start being more creative to generate MICE businesses.
FZ: What happened to the plans to build a convention centre in Victoria Falls?
GC: Until and unless government invests in such infrastructure at times, it will be very difficult to get a private investor to do this. The return takes a while. However, it would be a good investment for government and pension funds.
FZ: Senior Travelstart senior commercial manager Linda Balme told the meeting that Victoria Falls is one of the most expensive tourism destinations in the world. What is your comment on this?
GC: For starters, you have to compare oranges with oranges. If one was comparing Malaysia and Thailand, that would hold water. But if you are comparing Thailand and Victoria Falls, those are two different destinations.
But what is the cost make-up? You have airfares, of which 60% goes to taxes. Then there is the issue of supply and demand and the nature of the product. It is an exclusive type of accommodation and we have a shortage of the spectrum of accommodation, budget, middle and upper end income.
FZ: But the pricing is also deterring for domestic tourists?
GC: These are income level issues. I cannot say a Lamborghini is too expensive, when I should not even be looking at a Lamborghini.
We need to deal with the issue of income, basic needs and so on. So, when we look at all those things we are beginning now to see objectively and then in terms of investment instead of saying a hotel that was built with its old structure … Invest in the correct product for the domestic market, tourism was not created for the domestic market from the word go.