Zimbabwe banking on tourism bonanza

VICTORIA FALLS - Zimbabwe, its economy in ruins, is dreaming of millions of tourist dollars and even training visits by international football stars when the World Cup comes to South Africa next year.

Scottish explorer David Livingstone is said to have written after first seeing the Victoria Falls in 1855: "On sights as beautiful as this, angels in their flight must have gazed."

The magnificent waterfalls were once one of Africa's biggest tourist attractions, but Zimbabwe's political violence and economic collapse have reduced visitors to a trickle both here and at the country's other attractions. Tourist income has slumped from $360 million at its 1999 peak to $29 million last year.

An influx of football fans before or after the tournament would be a godsend for this once prosperous nation and visits by teams like Brazil, Germany or even England would offer a rare morale boost for millions of impoverished but football-mad fans.

The sight of David Beckham marvelling at the Victoria Falls or bending a trademark free kick on a local pitch would be a huge coup for a nation battling to shake-off its bad-boy image.

Tourism officials believe Zimbabwe could reap as much as $100 million from the World Cup, a windfall for a government which is broke and continues to be shunned by foreign donors.

The country has made international headlines for all the wrong reasons in the past decade, from violent seizures of white-owned farms, to election violence and political repression to the world's highest rate of hyper-inflation.

"This would be the perfect opportunity to showcase the other side of Zimbabwe by cleaning up our pariah image and showing the world that we have much to offer especially to tourists," said economist John Robertson.


But while the dream is almost painfully enticing for long-suffering Zimbabweans, it may well be unrealistic.

Teams looking for high altitude training to acclimatise for the June 11-July 11 World Cup may feel more comfortable in countries like Angola, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia, who do not have the baggage of an economy in ruins and a new power-sharing government that still has not won wide recognition.

A decade of crisis has wrecked infrastructure, including football stadiums and roads.

The 55,000-seater National Sports Stadium in Harare has been under repair for the past two years with no indication it will be ready in time.

Only one other stadium is up to scratch while plans to construct new ones were abandoned last year.

"When you look at the state of the pitch (at the national stadium), it is deplorable. We are a bit worried with the rate at which construction is going," said Henrietta Rushwaya, chief executive of the Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA).

Zimbabwe needs $2 billion to revamp decaying infrastructure, according to Public Works Minister Theresa Makone, and the dangerous state of the crumbling roads is another major concern.

But Western governments, who distrust President Robert Mugabe, are holding back on direct aid pending political and economic reforms.

Paul Matamisa, the tourist authority's 2010 coordinator, also cited a patchy telecommunications network, the slow upgrade of airports and the parlous state of loss-making Air Zimbabwe.

The Victoria Falls airport is too small to handle larger aircraft, even though Zimbabwe is only 90 minutes from Johannesburg, heart of the World Cup matches next year.

A decade ago nearly a dozen airlines flew to Zimbabwe but only four remain on the route.

"Those are the issues that Zimbabwe needs to address if we are to say we are ready to receive our visitors for the 2010 World Cup," Matamisa told Reuters.

There are also deep concerns over the country's health services after the biggest cholera outbreak in Africa in recent times left more than 4,200 dead and close to 100,000 infected.


But while the odds seem stacked against Zimbabwe, officials are not giving up on winning some benefit from the World Cup. They personally handed Brazilian President Lula da Silva an invitation for the five-time world champions to train in Zimbabwe.

ZIFA has formally invited the English FA and is still awaiting a response.

The Premier League is enthusiastically followed in Zimbabwe, like much of the rest of Africa, and if England accepted it would not only thrill thousands of fans but be a big public relations boost for Harare, given the former colonial ruler's strident opposition to Mugabe.

Zimbabwe has also invited Germany and the United States -- both which have now removed travel warnings -- and several other teams from Africa and Asia.

"This place is so beautiful and I do not see anyone not wanting to come here," said Anne Nielsen, a 29-year-old Danish tourist as the Victoria Falls, known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya or "Smoke That Thunders" roared behind her.

Apart from the falls, Zimbabwe can offer safari hunting, some of Africa's largest game reserves, scenic resorts and the ancient Great Zimbabwe ruins, one of the most important archeological sites on the continent.

German Ambassador Albrecht Cronze said he was hopeful his country's national team and supporters would visit Zimbabwe on their way to South Africa.

"We now see a bright future in Zimbabwe and as we prepare for 2010, we expect German football players and fans not only to see the Victoria Falls but the animals in Hwange (game reserve) and the beautiful scenery throughout the country," Cronze told a local travel magazine.