'Problems in Zim mean problems in Zambia'

HARARE - Zambians are scared that Zimbabwe’s forthcoming polls will compromise the smooth-running of a global tourism event being co-hosted by the two countries, according to United States ambassador to Zambia Mark Storella.

Both Zimbabwe and Zambia are hyping the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) as a catalyst to winning back tourists, but poor preparations by Harare and elections that are likely to turn violent have kept Zambia on the edge.

Storella told journalists that he learnt of the concerns through his “associations” in Zambia who are keenly following Zimbabwe’s road to watershed elections to be held most likely before end of July.

“According to my contacts Zambians are concerned about peace during elections. They want the elections to be peaceful for UNWTO. As we know problems in Zimbabwe mean problems in Zambia. It affects visitors’ flow and reduces economic activity,” Storella said.

Speaking to Zimbabwean female journalists visiting Zambia on a US programme, Storella said Zambians drew “some comfort” from the peaceful referendum held in Zimbabwe on March 16.

“Just as referendum went on peacefully, Zambians are optimistic that all goes well during the election as well,” he said.

But a recent crackdown on civil society and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s staff by police has renewed concerns.

Zambia and Zimbabwe will co-host the 20th UNWTO General Assembly from August 24 to 29, probably a month after Zimbabwe’s election.

Successive elections in Zimbabwe since 2000 have been blighted by violence, with the 2008 poll seen as one of the bloodiest. Stakes are higher this year given that this could be 89-year-old President Robert Mugabe’s last election and his campaigners are not leaving anything to chance.

The MDC party led by Tsvangirai claims it lost more than 200 of its supporters during the 2008 disputed elections which led to the formation of a “unity” government.

Funding for the tourism indaba has also been problematic.

While Zimbabwe is struggling to fund the tourism indaba amid discord in the coalition government, the US — a key player in global tourism — is happy with progress made thus in Zambia.

According to Storella, the Zambian government was doing its best to pool resources towards UNWTO preparations.

“Though infrastructure is still not enough to support the conference, Zambia is making a big effort and I am sure it is going to do a great job,” he said.

Just like Zambia, Zimbabwe has so far passed two inspection examinations by the UNWTO inspectorate but without any financial assistance from Finance minister Tendai Biti.

Tourism minister Walter Mzembi, a Zanu PF appointee, accuses MDC secretary general Biti of neglecting the country’s preparations for the tourism extravaganza to spite Mugabe.

Mzembi said although his ministry had a budget of $11,9 million, only $6 million was pledged by Biti.

Treasury is yet to release a cent despite the pledge, according to Mzembi.

UNWTO officials have since assisted Zimbabwe in drafting a Tourism Master Plan (TMP) expected to double tourist arrivals and increase the sector’s economic contribution by 2015.

The TMP is expected to adopt a fast-track strategy that would see arrivals grow to five million in 2015 from the current 2, 2 million.

During this period, the sector should subsequently create 150 000 new jobs and reach 450 000 jobs compared to the current 300 000, according to the master plan. - Wendy Muperi

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