‘Tourism industry being sold a dummy’

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WHEN the Covid-19 pandemic hit the globe in December 2019, many projected that like many outbreaks before, countries would contain it before devastating economies.

But eight months later, the world is battling to contain the epidemic. Lockdowns have affected food production and grounded economies.

Three weeks ago, Zimbabwe responded by unveiling the National Tourism Recovery and Growth Strategy, which targets to raise $600 million in rescue packages to prop up firms affected by lockdowns and grow the industry to a US$5 billion sector by 2025.

In this interview with our correspondent, Shame Makoshori (SM), Prince Dubeko Sibanda (PDS), the Binga North MP, argues that while planning is good, he is skeptical about government’s ability to implement its strategy. He says so devastating has overpromising been that the tourism sector has failed to reach full potential.

Q: Do you think the $600 million rescue package is enough?
A: The minister (Nqobizitha Mangaliso Ndlovu) seems to restrict himself to thinking that whatever recovery that the tourism industry needs is based on the setbacks that we received from the Covid-19 pandemic. The recovery and the growth that we need emanates from fundamental structural issues that we need to address. You can give companies allowances, but this will not get us to the level where we are supposed to be.

Q: If we appoint you Tourism minister today, what will be your first action?
A: The first thing that I will attend to is to say I cannot be a minister of Tourism who presides over a National Parks and Wildlife Act which was enacted in 1975 and still be proud to be a minister, especially if we say 60 percent of our earnings come from wildlife.

We need to attend to that Act and make sure that we bring it up to date with the requirements of today’s society.

The Act speaks more to the conditions of 1975 than it deals with the economy of 2020. If we deal with this issue then we can be able to build a strong tourism industry.

Talking of these allowances; I am a fisherman in Binga myself. We were promised recovery allowances over three months ago, but we have received nothing. I am mentioning this in relation to allowances that have been promised to the tourism sector. They may come after seven, eight or nine months. At that time, they will be too late and too little to make an impact, and the significance will be close to zero.

Q: This strategy places so much attention on SMEs. Does it make you happy?
A: The first thing is to lay a sufficient ground for ensuring that these investments in tourism are not elitist. Let us make sure that they are not only small-scale, but also community-supported and community-based. I do not see any small-scale investor success in tourism unless these projects truly support the communities, or come from communities.

Some of our challenges have been that projects are imposed from the top without the involvement of communities from planning to execution.

Q: What have you done in Binga North?
A: We have tried to engage investors who come here. We have said as much as you come with your investment plan, be prepared to listen to ideas that are going to come from the community. You must transform your original investment plan to suit the circumstances of the community.

We have an investor who came to Binga North with a plan that encroached into agricultural land. But because there was resistance, the investor had to redraw the boundaries. Let these investors partner with SMEs from the community to get the buy in.

Q: I take it that you are speaking on behalf of other communities who live close to wildlife like Binga?
A: Yes. I spoke about the need to reform the law earlier. I know that the minister thinks that it’s not about the law. But if you look at the law itself, it does not promote this community participation. Unless we reform the law, I think we will have serious challenges.

 

Q: Take us through the state of the tourism industry in Binga.
A: The difference between investing in wildlife and minerals, for example, is that when it comes to wildlife, there is none who come to invest without knowing that there is conflict between wildlife and the human beings.

 

It does not make sense to please an investor who invests in wildlife which destroys our crops, which even kills our people and says the balance is very tricky.

It does not have to be tricky. Every investor into wildlife should understand that wildlife is a unique resource which should be different from other natural resource areas. Binga is one of those destinations that are attracting so much domestic visitors. But one thing that is killing our industry is the road and transport infrastructure.

Q: What is wrong with infrastructure?
A: Our tourism has been affected by poor infrastructure. I get so many enquiries from people from Harare for example, who want to drive to Binga to enjoy our beautiful sand beach. But they cannot afford to drive via Karoi and they cannot afford to drive via Gokwe because the roads are bad. They have to drive via Bulawayo.

This increases their costs by over 50 percent. The strategy that the minister is talking about will not improve tourism unless we work on the transport and road network.

Q: But the road that worries you is being improved
A: My brother, my brother, from the time we were told about that road being done anew, less than 10 kilometres have been done.

There is nothing except banners that are showing that we are working on this road. Currently not even the equipment is there. They (the government) will say the strategy is to grow. But you can’t grow tourism without growing the infrastructure.

Q: I see so much government planning in this strategy?
A: As much as I respect planning, I am a guy that respects action more than planning. We have been throwing adverts all over our media to say that road is being improved. It creates the belief that it should now be easy to reach that tourist destination.

Promises and plans on their own cannot improve our economy. We need to move beyond planning to being action-oriented. I appreciate the resource constraints that the government faces. But the moment we promise that we want to make the Karoi-Binga road a better road, we should make sure we fulfil our words.

Q: You work closely with local authorities that take too long to issue permits. What have you done?
A: The issue of rigidity cannot only be assigned to local authorities. It also applies to the central government. The Department of National Parks is incapacitated to manage our wildlife to maximise our benefit.

There is rigidity within National Parks itself. A few years back I was approached by an investor who wanted to partner them at Chizarira. They had hit a rock and I went all the way to the minister, but up to today that project has not taken off and I am sure the investor has given up. But National Parks is incapacitated and needs partnerships.

Q: What has been the implications of poaching to the tourism industry?
A: There is commercial poaching and poaching for domestic consumption. I realise that the minister said he has never poached himself. Maybe he is afraid of being accused of being conflicted, that how can you be a poacher and a conserver at the same time. But I don’t suffer from the same problem. We grew up hunting during the Rhodesian era. I don’t want to call it poaching.

However, the problem is commercial poaching. We must invest into that feeling of honourship of the resources by our people. That was the objective of Campfire.

But it is now a dead horse. I am happy that it is being reviewed. We will look at the adjustments and comment. For now, we are simply enduring animals destroying our crops, destroying our lives and making us miserable.

Q: You said you have invested in kapenta fishing. Is there money in fishing?
A: Before I get to that let me comment on the Department of National Parks again. I am simply identifying the gaps that need to be improved. I don’t hate my institutions. I know National Parks may be receiving accolades as the minister says. But I don’t live in accolades, I live in communities. But fishing, like any other business, if it is run properly can give returns.

It is giving me returns that I am satisfied with and I will continue to invest in that industry. I started participating in this industry about a year-and-a-half ago. My view is that every rig gives me US$200 000 to
US$250 000 in profit, and I have three rigs so far.

Q: So you are a millionaire in US dollar terms?
A: Not exactly. This is a seasonal business. It has its ups and downs. For instance, there has been an increase in running costs like fuel and leakages on the river during fishing because you can’t be on every rig when the fishermen go into the river.

And of course, there are statutory payments that we make. At times they are high.fishing in Binga can be a big tourist attraction.

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