Unleashing Zimbabwe’s tourism potential

Article published in How We Made it in Africa on 2nd February 2017

Also published in the Centre for African Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, on the 3rd February 2017


Zimbabwe is a landlocked country located in Southeast Africa, bordered by Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. The country has a population of over 15 million people, from which around 2.8 million people live in the metropolitan area around its capital, Harare.

This controversial country is being ruled by dictator Robert Mugabe since 1980, when its independency from the UK became internationally recognized. Zimbabwe’s history, like that of most African countries, is filled with long periods of political and economic turmoil. However, its natural sceneries remained a focus of touristic attraction throughout even the difficult times.

International tourism accounted for 20.3% of Zimbabwe’s exports in 2014 and generated a revenue of US$ 827 million to the country[1]. The Victoria Falls and the Zambezi river account as the most sought-after sight-seeing places by the tourists visiting the country.

Although Zimbabwe holds unmatched natural beauties, the sector accounts for only a small portion of the country’s GDP. In 2015, tourism made up to only 5.2% of the GDP, falling from 5.6% in 2014[2]. The country still struggles with the usual issues that affect tourism in other African countries: deficient overall infrastructure, ranging from poor air transport and road infrastructure to tourism services infrastructure; unfriendly business environment, which creates a difficult environment for companies to do business and, consequently, grow the hospitality sector; and issues with safety and security.

Although Zimbabwe still requires investments in the areas that support the tourism, the country presents a huge potential for the development for this sector. With unmatchable natural beauties, exotic and ancient culture and unique food, this country hosts a large potential for becoming a preferred tourist destination in Africa.

Improving the laws to attract foreign investment, fostering private-public partnerships in hospitality and largely invest in the marketing of the Zimbabwean brand in the international market could be the first steps that will make the tourism sector gain more traction in the country.

Tourism in Sub-Saharan Africa

The World Economic Forum published in 2015 its sixth edition of the Travel and Tourism Competitive Report, covering a broad range of aspects that affect the tourism industry in more than 140 countries. In its analysis, the report takes into account data from many fronts such as international air carriers, customs authorities, the hotel industry, travel agencies and industry specialists to evaluate 90 indicators that, when put together, create a global rank of the “Most Tourist-ready Economies”.

The 90 parameters that compose the Global Travel and Tourism (T&T) Competitive Index are grouped into 4 categories: Enabling Environment; Travel and Tourism and Enabling Conditions; Infrastructure; and Natural and Cultural Resources. The index provides a good comparison of the attractiveness of the tourism industry in different countries, showing which areas are doing well and what could still be improved upon.

Overall Africa’s tourism sector faces some hardships that prevents the countries to explore a large and untapped potential. With the most diverse fauna and flora in the world, beautiful beaches, rivers and waterfalls, rich culture and food, Africa as a whole could greatly develop its tourism industry. Longstanding infrastructural challenges, low health and hygiene standards, closed or bureaucratic business environments and lengthy and difficult visa obtaining processes are the main obstacles hindering the development of the tourism industry in the continent.

South Africa still remains as the most tourism-ready country in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, in the Global T&T Competitive Index, it ranks 48th (see Table 1). Zimbabwe ranks lower, both in the regional group (15th in Sub-Saharan Africa) and globally (115th position).

According to the T&T Competitive Report, Zimbabwe is strong at its natural resources: world heritage cultural sites, animal species, protected areas and quality of the natural environment. It also ranks well in ease of finding skilled employees and female labour force participation. However, the overall business environment sector still lacks a solid base necessary to attract more investment. Rules on foreign direct investment, property rights and the steps necessary to obtain construction permits and open a business are some of the issues faced by entrepreneurs of the tourism sector.

Most Tourism-ready Economies in Sub-Saharan Africa Global Rank Regional Rank
South Africa 48 1
Seychelles 54 2
Mauritius 56 3
Namibia 70 4
Kenya 78 5
Cape Verde 86 6
Botswana 88 7
Tanzania 93 8
Rwanda 98 9
Zambia 107 10
Swaziland 108 11
The Gambia 109 12
Senegal 112 13
Uganda 114 14
Zimbabwe 115 15

Table 1 – Most Tourism-ready Economies in Sub-Saharan Africa [3]

Zimbabwe’s Tourist Attractions

Zimbabwe is distinctive in Africa for its large number of medieval era city ruins built in a unique dry stone style. Possibly the most famous of these are the Great Zimbabwe ruins in Masvingo, which survive from the Kingdom of Zimbabwe era. Located in the southeast of the country, near Lake Mutirikwe and the town of Masvingo, the ruins constitute what used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe.

The stone city, built between the 11th and 15th centuries, spans an area of near 800 hectares and its population exceeded 10,000 people. Circa 1450, the capital was abandoned because the hinterland could no longer furnish food for the overpopulated city and due to deforestation. It is recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO[4].


Figure 1 – Great Zimbabwe National Monument

In western Zimbabwe, the Zambezi National Park and the Victoria Falls National Park cover an area of 56,000 hectares. The parks are bounded by the great Zambezi River, which also forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia for much of its length. A wide variety of large mammals may be found within the parks, including elephants, lions, buffalos and leopards. In addition, herds of sable antelope, eland, zebra, giraffe, kudu, waterbuck and impala, as well as many of the smaller species of game, can be viewed. The Zambezi River is home to over 75 species of fish and is famous for its bream and fighting tiger fish[5].

Besides the fauna, the Victoria Falls make one of the most sought attractions of the parks (see Figure 2). The waterfall stands at an altitude of about 915m above mean sea level and spans to about 1,708m wide with an average depth of 100m, the deepest point being 108m. Sprays from this giant waterfall can be seen from a distance of 30km [6].


Figure 2 – Victoria Falls

The Eastern Highlands are a 300km long strip of mountains, which form the natural border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique[7]. The region has a climate cooler and wetter than other parts of Africa. The 47,000-hectare Nyanga National Park features Zimbabwe’s highest peak, Mount Nyangani, and Africa’s second-longest waterfall, Mutarazi Falls.


Figure 3 – Northern part of the Eastern Highlands range as seen from Nyanga town [8]

Located in the northwest part of Zimbabwe, the Hwange National Park is the largest Park in the country, occupying roughly 1,465,000 hectare. It became the royal hunting grounds to the Ndebele warrior-king Mzilikazi in the early 19th century and was set aside as a National Park in 1929 [9]. Hwange hosts a wide number of species: over 100 mammal and 400 bird species, including 19 large herbivores and eight large carnivores. A significant feature of the park is the absence of permanent surface water. Animals rely heavily on a series of waterholes, many of which dry up completely during drought years[10]. To ensure the livelihood of the animals, these waterholes are maintained by non-profit organizations throughout the year.

Zimbabwe’s Tourism in Numbers

Zimbabwe has certainly a number of natural attractions that justify a growing tourism industry. In 2014, Zimbabwe figured among the group of Sub-Saharan African countries where the tourism sector constitutes a large part of the country’s exports (see Figure 4). After a drop in the relative size of the sector to total exports in 2011, when it accounted for only 13.5% of exports, this proportion increased to 20.3% by 2014, showing the growing importance of the tourism industry for the Zimbabwean economy (see Figure 5).

In recent years, the number of international tourists visiting Zimbabwe also steadily grew. From 1.8 million foreign tourists in 2012, the number increased by 200 thousand within 3 years (see Figure 6). However, 86% of Zimbabwe’s tourists come from other African countries (1.76 million tourists) (see Figure 7). Tourists coming from South Africa make the vast majority, accounting for near 750 thousand visits in 2015.

The expenditure by international tourists in Zimbabwe is also observed to have risen markedly over the past years (see Figure 8). From US$ 523 million in 2009, the amount of money foreign visitors spent in Zimbabwe grew to US$ 886 million by 2015.


Figure 4 – Size of Tourism Industry as a Percentage of Country’s Exports – Sub-Saharan African countries – 2014  [11]


Figure 5 – Size of Tourism Industry as a Percentage of Country’s Exports – Zimbabwe [12]


Figure 6 – International Tourism Number of Arrivals – Zimbabwe [13]


Figure 7 – Total International Tourists Arrivals in Zimbabwe – 2015 [14]


Figure 8 – International Tourism Expenditure – Zimbabwe [15]

Tourism Constraints in Zimbabwe

The choice of Zimbabwe as a tourism destination is still very rare among non-African nationals. The lack of direct flights and limited marketing efforts constitute just a few of the barriers preventing a larger growth of the number of international travellers to the country.

The need for a visa can also make the difference between a decision on which country to visit. The Africa Visa Openness Report, created by the African Development Bank, McKinsey & Company and the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Africa, ranks countries on the openness of their visa regimes. Visa openness is about facilitating free movement of people, to carry out their business easily, spontaneously, quickly, with minimum cost.

The report takes into consideration whether a country requires foreigners to obtain a visa and, in case it does, whether it has to be issued prior to the trip or on arrival. It also considers the number of countries from whose citizens a visa is required as a percentage of total number of countries. Seychelles scores the highest, being the most open country in Africa to international travellers. Seychelles has been considered an early reformer in relaxing visa requirements to boost its tourism sector. As a result, the country has seen 7% annual growth in international tourism arrivals between 2009-2014 [16].

Zimbabwe ranks at 27th position, requiring some sort of visa from travellers originated from 74% of the countries worldwide. However, Zimbabwe is one of only 9 African countries offering eVisas. Electronic visas or eVisas can be a more effective alternative to traditional paper visas, given that online visas do not require the traveller to be physically present or to present a passport before travel. However, a request for an eVisa does not automatically give the visitor the visa, which can be accepted or refused and costs paid may not be reimbursed[17]. From the 46 countries whose nationals are not required any visa to enter Zimbabwe, only 63% are non-African countries, and from those, many are small island states famous for receiving tourists, not exporting them. Antigus & Barbuda, Aruba, Grenada, Kiribati, Maldives, Nauru, Tonga and Tuvalu are only a few examples[18].

Once tourists arrive in Zimbabwe, they may face other hurdles. The economic crisis that has been affecting many sectors of the Zimbabwean economy, also caused delays in payment of public employees, including the police. By early this year, the government had not yet paid most of its employees their December salaries and annual bonuses. In the meantime, president Mugabe went off on a one month vacation to Singapore and China, accompanied by his family and a large entourage of security aides. The presidential holidays are expected to cost at least US$ 6 million[19].

A consequence of having unpaid public employees, is that they will find other ways to make money: a growing number of police roadblocks are reported along many highways in Zimbabwe. Masked as means to curb road carnage, these roadblocks are nothing more than a way found by the police to seize cash from unadvised tourists.

George Manyumwa, president of Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe (HAZ), acknowledges that the number of roadblocks is detrimental to tourism in the country. From Harare to Kariba, in the Charara Safari area, a distance of less than 400km, it is not surprising to find up to 20 police roadblocks[20]. The problem of the excessive roadblocks became so common that there are several stories of hotels reportedly offering a discount equivalent to the traffic fines its guests would have racked up on their way to its lodgings[21].

With the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar in 2009, the country started using South African rand and US dollars as main currencies. Compared to other African countries, which saw their currencies devaluate in recent years, Zimbabwe became an expensive tourist destination with its dollarized economy[22]. The low number of direct flights to Harare also adds to the cost tourists have to incur just to get to the country.

Unleashing Potential

Tourism already accounts for a sizeable portion of Zimbabwe’s exports. However, this share could be much larger if proper infrastructure is put in place. Investments in infrastructure increasingly lag behind industry growth. Infrastructure investments such as in airport development, road and rail, and communication technologies, are essential to unleash the potential of this industry and keep it growing.

As observed in innumerable cases, tourism does not develop before the introduction of a plan which includes upgrading tourism and transport infrastructure, calibrating fiscal incentives, restoring cultural heritage and launching national and international promotional campaigns.

Zimbabwe has recently made some progress in the tourism infrastructural area. In December 2015, a new terminal at the Victoria Falls International Airport was opened to passengers. This state-of-the-art airport has a 4km long runway capable to accommodate large aircrafts such as the A380. The airport is expected to attract 1.5 million passengers per year, a huge jump from the previous 176,000. It currently handles 5 airlines but it has room for many more. Besides being able to receive more travellers willing to see the Victoria Falls National Park, the geographical location of the airport is favourable to make it as a regional hub, bridging tourists between different African regions[23].

In July 2015, Zimbabwe tourism sector gained international exposure due to the killing of famous Cecil lion by an American tourist. Although the impact of the news was initially negative, the response of the Zimbabwean authorities to the case, showing a growing concern towards increasing measures that would avoid such a tragic event to repeat, gained positive international recognition. This paves a road to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly eco-tourism, which is a growing trend nowadays.

By end of 2015, Harare held the 18th edition of the International Conference on AIDS and STI’s In Africa (ICASA). The conference drew over 5,000 participants from 90 different countries[24]. The event alone generated close to US$ 6 million[25]. This type of conference can become a powerful source of tourism revenue to Zimbabwe. Events like this increase awareness of the host country, incentivise the government to invest in better infrastructure, which includes transportation, accommodation and air services. The elements of relaxation, shopping and sightseeing usually come as a by-product of the conferences. Foreign delegates many times decide to extend their trips and enjoy the opportunity of exploring the touristic attractions of the new country. Zimbabwe should continue marketing the country as a host location for large international conferences.

In terms of creating employment, not only is the tourism sector relatively labour intensive, it tends to employ more women and young people than most industries, and creates more opportunities for SMEs. While the belief persists that employment in tourism tends to be low-pay/low-skills, the sector increasingly demands high-skilled workers in areas such as in information and communications technology, management and marketing. Developing specialized tourism niches also promotes higher-skilled employment[26],[27].

Zimbabwe has a good base that could translate to a rapid and booming development of the tourism sector. It certainly has very beautiful fauna and flora, and ancient heritage that appeals to many travellers looking for adventure and relaxation. The government is making some progress developing the sector but with added private investment this pace could be largely improved. With the right strategy, Zimbabwe can become a major destination for international travellers from around the world. And, in the process, grow its economy.

The author, Otavio Veras, is a Research Associate of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, a trilateral platform for government, business and academia to promote knowledge and expertise on Africa, established by Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation. Otavio can be reached at overas@ntu.edu.sg.  

[1] The World Bank

[2] Tourism Trends and Statistics Report 2015 (Zimbabwe Tourism Authority)

[3] Travel and Tourism Competitive Report 2015 (World Economic Forum, 2015)

[4] Great Zimbabwe National Monument (UNESCO)

[5] Victoria Falls Guide

[6] Mosi-oa-Tunya / Victoria Falls (UNESCO)

[7] Experience Zimbabwe

[8] Eastern Highlands (Wikipedia)

[9] Hwange National Park (The Zimbabwe Parks & Wild Life Management Authority)

[10] The Hide – Hwange National Park

[11] The World Bank

[12] The World Bank

[13] The World Bank

[14] Tourism Trends and Statistics Report 2015 (Zimbabwe Tourism Authority)

[15] The World Bank

[16] African Economic Outlook 2014 (African Development Bank Group)

[17] Africa Visa Openness Report 2016 (African Development Bank Group)

[18] eVisa Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe Immigration)

[19] Zimbabwe: Mugabe Takes ‘Spending Spree’ to China (All Africa, Jan 2017)

[20] Too many police roadblocks threatening tourism (News Day, Nov 2016)

[21] Excessive police roadblocks not good for brand Zim (News Day, Nov 2016)

[22] High prices deterring tourists to Zimbabwe (Nehanda Radio, Jan 2015)

[23] Tourism Trends and Statistics Report 2015 (Zimbabwe Tourism Authority)

[24] ICASA 2015 Monitoring & Evaluation Report (International Conference on AIDS and STI’s In Africa (ICASA))

[25] Tourism Trends and Statistics Report 2015 (Zimbabwe Tourism Authority)

[26] Travel and Tourism Competitive Report 2015 (World Economic Forum, 2015)

[27] Seven Transformations that May Change the Travel and Tourism Sector—A Business Perspective (World Economic Forum, Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2015)

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