Home to Victoria Falls – among the most spectacular sights on Earth – Zimbabwe has long been considered the jewel of African tourism.
However, political turmoil has seen the destination slip from the international tourist trail over the past decade.
Now, with a semblance of stability returning, Breaking Travel News here examines if the country can turn the corner and reclaim its rightful place.
Zimbabwe has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons for over a decade; with political, racial and religious violence becoming the face of a nation.
It is easy to forget during the 1980s the southern African destination was one of the hottest properties on the global tourist trail – offering millions of international visitors everything from world-class safaris, to adventure holidays and luxury wildlife breaks.
That, however, was before the process of land reform initiated by president Robert Mugabe in 2000 virtually destroyed the local economy and shunted the destination from travellers’ minds.
Now, with a process of reconciliation underway, tourists are again considering Zimbabwe as a possible holiday location. But are they right to do so?
Originally heralded as a saviour of his nation, leading Zimbabwe in the heroic struggle to free itself of colonial Britain, Robert Mugabe has since become a pariah.
In 2000 his party, ZANU-PF, introduced a series of land reforms which have since virtually obliterated the Zimbabwean economy, while simultaneously embarking on a series of violent crackdowns against opposition figures.
International sanctions have had little impact on his grip on power, with Britain and America leading a chorus of international condemnation.
But, with the 87-year-old Mugabe beginning to openly talk of succession there is hope Zimbabwe may finally be preparing to turn a corner.
An uneasy power-sharing deal signed following the disputed 2008 elections has seen opposition leaders Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara assume government positions, while a new currency has checked rampant inflation.
All this has led to an air of nervous optimism in the country, with the national tourism industry quietly hoping a peaceful Zimbabwe can return to its rightful position on the tourist trail.
For all its political problems, Zimbabwe is imbued with a wealth of natural treasures which allowed it to rise to prominence in the early 1980s.
With Victoria Falls as the obvious highlight, the country also offers international travellers incredible game safaris that make it the envy of Africa.
Indeed, during the halcyon years of the 1980s, the arrival of legacy carriers such as Qantas and Lufthansa, coupled with the construction of stylish new hotels, catapulted Zimbabwe into the ranks of the tourism premier league.
But the launch of the Fast Track Land Reform Programme in July 2000 sounded the death knell. The travel trade imploded virtually overnight, with international arrivals plummeting to less than a quarter of the previous year, as a number of carriers quickly pulled the airlift plug.
Return to Form
Over the past two years a relative calm has returned to Zimbabwe.
According to the influential tourism body, the World Travel & Tourism Council, Zimbabwe’s tourism economy is set to grow at 9.2 percent this year – making it the fourth fastest growing tourism economy in the world.
The last couple of years have seen a marked improvement in the roads and food is increasingly available to visitors, thanks to the introduction of the American dollar as the currency.
Visitors have also begun to return, although the morality of the decision has been questioned in some quarters, with critics arguing it is wrong to support tyrannical regime with tourism dollars.
It is the poor of Zimbabwe who suffered most when the flow of international visitors dried up, not Mugabe. Life expectancy fell as low as 40 among some communities, with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, poverty and fall in the standard of living, triggered by the economic crisis, all taking a toll.
The political situation is also unlikely to affect international visitors.
What to See
Those choosing to visit will be richly rewarded.
With Zimbabwe off the tourist trail for the past decade, vast areas of unspoilt wilderness have evolved, populated with welcoming Zimbabweans keen to receive international guests.
Preconceptions aside, Zimbabwe is one of Africa’s tourism jewels, offering an abundance of wildlife and a warmth of welcome that you will find hard to rival anywhere else in the continent.
So, onto Victoria Falls – here holidaymakers can bungee jump or abseil into the gorge, go white-river rafting, paragliding or even go basejumping. But perhaps the greatest joy is to stand back and stare in awe at one of the great natural attractions of planet earth.
Guests looking to stay in the area can consider the Victoria Falls Hotel, operated by Africa Sun Hotels. Recreating the old world charm of early last century, the five-star hotel is know as the “Grand Old Lady of the Falls”, with corridors lined with memorabilia of a bygone era; expect traditional cast-iron bath tubs mixed with modern amenities such as satellite television.
Also on offer is the Mana Pools National Park which stretches across 2000km² of prime Zambezi riverfront vegetation, much of which is inaccessible except on foot and as a result is completely unspoilt. Big, beefy black buffalo are always about and predators like leopards, lions and cheetah are seen regularly.
Meikles Hotel, in Harare, is considered by many to be the finest in the country. The natural warmth of the Zimbabwean people is here mixed with world-class facilities to offer guests a home-from-home in the central business and shopping districts of the capital, overlooking Africa Unity Square and the colourful flower gardens.
Back in the rural idyll, Singita Pamushana Lodge is nestled in a forest overlooking a spectacular dam in south-eastern Zimbabwe’s Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve. The six suites offer secluded luxury amid breathtaking views, while the 321,000-acre private reserve is renowned for its teeming wildlife, including rare and endangered species such as the black rhino. The reserve is also famed for its majestic Mopane forests and Baobab trees.
A new air of restraint in Zimbabwe has allowed for a constitutional referendum to be scheduled for later this year, with the hope of fostering a new, stable future for the country.
It can only be hoped a peaceful transition to a democratic country will see international visitors return to this most deserving of countries and allow it to reclaim its place as the pride of Africa.