Zimbabwe has been rocked by anti-government protests over the past few weeks as the economic situation in the country continues to worsen. Last week, President Robert Mugabe told those that were not happy with the situation to leave the country.
Other government ministers have accused protest leaders of being agents of western governments that allegedly want to topple Mugabe.
But Tourism and Hospitality Industry minister Walter Mzembi (WM) thinks otherwise.
Mzembi told our senior reporter Richard Chidza (RC) in a wide-ranging interview that government must engage the protesters to resolve the national crisis as a matter of urgency.
Below are excerpts of the interview.
RC: In the past three weeks Zimbabwe has seen some unrest over various government policies, how has this impacted tourism now and going forward?
WM: Tourism cannot market conflict but I am happy you mention Zimbabwe, therefore our national brand is the one on trial, and it behoves us to resolve our differences peacefully.
We definitely should not disregard and belittle grievances arising out of our policy making, because all policies have intended and unintended consequences, the impact of which we must anticipate on recipients.
That notwithstanding, the reaction from either side must be devoid of bravado, with recognition that it is ordinary Zimbabweans who ultimately pay the costly price of disunity and division if we don’t observe and embrace constructive engagement.
Unrest repulses tourism, and our domestic differences, left unresolved in this information and technology age and its attendant internationalisation of news, have the potential of being taken advantage of by our detractors to our demise.
Fortunately, current global conflicts notwithstanding, the attempt by some of us to internationalise our disputes are of a scale that relegate our differences to their appropriate status, where they do not translate into negative travel advisories.
RC: The Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) continues to face accusations of rights abuses and using excessive force against protestors. In your travels, what kind of Zimbabwe is out there?
WM: It is the same Zimbabwean police who are applauded for exceptional international policing and peace keeping assignments. In-fact, I have knowledge of former ZRP deployees in the UN [United Nations] systems who are doing very well.
The world applauds the peace and stability that prevails in Zimbabwe to which the ZRP is a major contributory factor.
Any excesses and or abuse established must be dealt with accordingly and a police force is as good as its citizenry, and responsible citizens keep abuses in check — they report alleged abuse.
RC: Have you had to defend government’s record in dealing with dissent and opposition?
WM: No record has been placed before me to defend.
RC: What could government do to reduce the impact of the negative publicity and what is your ministry doing in this regard?
WM: We must package and communicate our policies better. Even where policies are well meaning if the packaging is not done properly, it can achieve the opposite.
When conceiving policies, consultation is key to ensure comprehension and buy-in.
It should not be done in retrospect or as an after-thought. My ministry incidentally has the mandate for national brand formulation and construction, and we are in the process of extensive consultations to achieve the same.
National branding is the ultimate prescription in raising the level of consciousness of what constitutes national interest and what to protect irrespective of differences.
RC: How much support have you received from Cabinet in this regard?
WM: The significance of tourism in the national economy is acknowledged by all, to the extent that it is an economic pillar, along with agriculture, mining and manufacturing as anchors of our economic turnaround.
The stand-alone designation of my ministry places us at the end and beginning of the economic value chain, and so far I am happy with the support I am getting.
RC: You are in the running to be secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Authority (UNWTO). You have endorsement from Sadc and the African Union (AU). Can you give us an update on that front?
WM: Going forward, it’s time to convince the world on the efficacy of my vision for global tourism ahead of elections in May 2017.
I wish to express my gratitude to Sadc and the AU for their endorsements and indeed reiterate my appreciation to His Excellency the President Robert Gabriel Mugabe for this special dispensation to participate in the election processes for this post.
RC: Over the years, you have not hidden your vision for a multi-billion tourism industry. as you prepare to join the UNWTO and leave government, would you say you have done well?
WM: Habbakuk 2 verse 2, implores us to “Write the vision and make it plain upon tables, that he may run, that readeth it”. I planted the vision for Zimbabwe tourism through the new tourism policy embraced by Cabinet in December 2012, and that is basically the guiding compass for the sector.
The dashboard for tourism development is the 5:5:15:2020 vision interpreted to mean moving towards a $5 billion tourism economy from five million arrivals contributing 15% to the gross domestic product (GDP) by year 2020. Everyone in the sector sings this goal.
Eternal legacy is not anchored on material things, otherwise King Solomon’s riches and temple would be evidently in our midst. It’s ideological and philosophical issues, ideas that people hang on to when you are not there.
I am not leaving government as a matter of fact, I am being deployed to a senior international inter-governmental level. My sense is that I will probably do more for my government from that international vantage point.
RC: Has Zimbabwe penetrated the European tourism source markets?
WM: European traditional markets are our playing fields. We are instead penetrating new emerging markets that include the Brics [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa].
Collectively, they now constitute the largest source market in the world, with China alone poised to generate 600 million outbound tourists by 2020, from the current 120 million!
The issue is, are we ready to receive the world? Here I cite our static room stock, airline accessibility and connectivity, visa openness and our facilitation of expenditure by tourists through online payments.
We need to up our game in the areas mentioned, including closing the infrastructure gap; roads, railways, utilities; our laundry list is endless.
RC: What is the level of support you will be getting from the AU? Is there moral, political and material support as well?
WM: I am grateful and humbled by the endorsement extended through the 27th AU heads of State and government summit, which is an expression of political goodwill and support at the highest level from the continent. Anything else beyond this would be a welcome bonus.
RC: And yet in spite of an impeccable record and what you have said, Honourable minister, the Zimbabwe brand appears to be collateral damage to your campaign. What do you in conclusion have to say about this?
WM: “Nazareth!” Exclaimed Nathanael. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” “Come and see for yourself”, Philip replied. John 1 verse 46 is my source of strength in turning adversity into opportunity!
Armed with faith that there is a God of justice up there who rewards each and every one of us according to their works, I got Zimbabwe elected into the executive council of the UNWTO in 2009-2013, have chaired the UNWTO Commission for Africa since 2009 to-date for a record two terms, been three time president of the Washington-based Africa Travel Association and as Dean of African Tourism ministers, have been in the cockpit of global tourism sponsoring many thoughts and agendas on the sector.
The world came and saw Zimbabwe for itself, when we successfully co-hosted the UNWTO 20th Session General Assembly in August 2013, the second to be hosted by Africa since its inception. To quote the current secretary general, Taleb Rifai, it was “the best ever attended general assembly in the history of general assemblies”. Resolutions arising from that historic meeting are a lasting legacy guiding the development of the sector as we speak.