Alfred M. Mthimkhulu
How does Zimbabwe and the region attract tourists? It is a simple question with a simple answer. We have tourists attractions such as the Victoria Falls that are must-visits. Most of our anchor attractions are national parks. As such, we showcase our wildlife to attract visitors. At RG Mugabe International Airport for instance are statues of big animals heralding what lies inland. Players in the tourism sector market the national parks and other destinations with an implicit message that the region is beautiful. That is how we attract tourists.
But what do we seek to accomplish in so-packaging ourselves? Our ultimate goal is to make money meaning that our discreet message should really be “come and spend”. It is not. It is “come and see”.
That the landscape is beautiful and endowed with a fascinating wildlife and natural wonders helps. It ensures that tourists are spoiled for choice, from Table Mountain at the foot of the continent to the Drakensberg Mountains in the southeast, the Kalahari Desert in the west from which emerge meanders of the Okavango Delta with the Zambezi River further north channelling all that water from the highlands of Angola down the cliffs of the Victoria Falls to a thunderous smoke. That the landscape is beautiful indeed helps.
One of my favourite books is a biography of Daniel F. Malan by Dr Lindie Koorts. In 1912 he visited Rhodesia. His biographer writes that “he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the region . . . He had seen the capitals of Europe, but remained unimpressed. Here in the African bush, however, he was enchanted . . . Every place was more beautiful than the next, from the Matopos Mountains to the fertile valleys and the majestic Victoria Falls.” Malan described Zambezi River as “the pride of Africa . . . (its) bushy banks and shady islands present a scene so picturesque and so romantic as to rival any other in the world.”
A hundred years later, our approach to tourism has hardly changed: the tourist arrives, admires the beautiful landscape, takes some pictures and goes back home. We lack a diverse set of activities to ensure tourists spend more than entry fees, the hotel bill and the usual artefacts from curio shops. We must do our best to deplete their wallets so nicely that they rush to their bases to refill and return to spend again.
Recently, I had a great experience at a national park when, during a game drive, we witnessed a cheetah pin down a bushbuck for lunch.
“You guys are so lucky, this is very rare sight even for us,” the guides confessed.
The economist in me quietly thought “surely I should have been made to pay more for this particular game drive. I would have.”
But is it possible to price a product whose production process is uniform but the output heterogenous and unpredictable? I doubt if it is possible to price such if our rationalisations orbit within known prisms. A suitable pricing system is only possible if we push frontiers of our known realities. Maybe I’m getting too abstract here.
Anyway, I wondered as we sped towards the sprinting cheetah if drones can disturb the harmony of the bush and its wildlife. How could their use contribute to a pricing system that would ensure I paid more than standard price for witnessing the fastest animal in action?
The future of tourism in southern Africa is exciting especially if our young and dreamy engineers, architects, conservationists etc. are empowered to envision what for now may seem ridiculous. Brochures with beautiful landscapes and animals will not take us far.
A week ago, I read of a think tank in Masdar City which has come up with an idea to part the Arabian Gulf waters so as to build a giant aquarium called the Pharaoh’s Pass.
“Designers said the project could become a marine park, with retail shops, cafés and seafood restaurants — all surrounded by floating villas. Visitors would be transported within the Pharaoh’s Pass in horse-drawn carts, in keeping with the traditions of ancient Egypt. There, they will be able to see marine life from behind giant glass walls, while the floor of the project will consist of natural sea sand, seashells and marine coral.”
The National, a UAE newspaper reported. Clearly, there will be lots of things to spend money on at the bottom of the sea and the views will be awesome.
A tourist attraction as envisaged by the Masdar City think tank requires massive capital, the initial being human ingenuity which we generally underrate in Africa. Arguably, Zimbabwe can lead the region in transforming a still mundane tourism sector currently almost devoid of human ingenuity prevailing in our times. Zimbabwe has that requisite human capital especially in its huge diaspora.
It is in redeploying diaspora human capital back home; it is when that cosmopolitan skill-set is finally reimported with its rich network that countries leap onto new growth trajectories. Monetary remittances are overrated because they are consumptive. I am yet to visit or hear of a place on earth without an enchanting view, a place without a fascinating habitat or a gripping story to attract streams of tourists — even former prisons like Robben Island are cash cows as eerie as they feel.
We must tone down on pitching mere beauty of landscape and its habitat as be-alls of our tourism sector. Africa too can embrace a futuristic tourism sector enmeshed with modern technologies. Hopefully, Special Economic Zones in places like Victoria Falls will champion the realisation of such futures. If they do it well, tourism may surpass others sectors as the backbone of the economy, all things being equal.
For that to happen, our mindsets must escape current prisms and engage what may seem ridiculous. Twenty and thirty somethings are better placed to do just that. It is perhaps why the sector is led by one of the youngest cabinet ministers.
Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @mthimz