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Tourists are urged to support Zimbabwe's local businesses as the country struggles to recover. Charles Starmer-Smith reports.By Charles Starmer-Smith
The Foreign Office lifted its ban on travel to Zimbabwe this week following a decrease in violence in the country, although warnings remain against visits to some areas.
The lifting of the ban was welcomed by African tour operators.
"This is brilliant news," said John Berry, managing director of the Zambezi Safari and Travel Company. "We have had a big issue with the Foreign Office over its ban on travel, which has affected the industry very heavily and unnecessarily.
"Areas such as Victoria Falls, Hwange National Park and the lower Zambezi are isolated and the problems elsewhere did not warrant a blanket ban."
In 1999, before the Zimbabwean government began its seizures of white-owned farms, the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority recorded nearly 600,000 overseas visitors. The subsequent violence, coupled with severe fuel shortages in 2000, resulted in travel warnings being issued by many governments, prompting insurance companies to suspend travel cover and most tour operators to pull out. Last year the number of visitors from outside Africa was down to 218,000, according to the Zimababwe Tourism Authority.
Mr Berry said his company continued to operate trips during this period and that British visitors made up only 30 per cent of his clients. He said British tourists would only return in significant numbers when there was a change in leadership in Zimbabwe.
"There is a lot of pent-up demand waiting for Robert Mugabe to go," he said. "When this happens then tourism will really return."
The Foreign Office says that unrest could erupt without warning amid continuing uncertainty over power-sharing arrangements between Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.
"We strongly advise against all travel to high-density, low-income suburban areas at any time and all but essential travel to rural Mashonaland, rural Manicaland and farming areas," the Foreign Office statement said. "There have been a number of serious incidents in rural areas. You should also avoid areas where war veterans are active. The situation remains unpredictable; incidents of violence across the country continue."
Zimbabwe's tourist attractions traditionally included excellent safari parks as well as the Victoria Falls, the Zambezi, and the Great Zimbabwe ruins.
However, Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, a group set up in 2001 with the aim of raising awareness about poaching and environmental damage occurring in Zimbabwe, said that wildlife was not nearly as abundant as it used to be as a result of illegal hunting and water shortages.
He estimates that game ranches have lost between 80 and 90 per cent of wildlife to poachers. He believes it will take years for the industry to recover. Hotels need renovating, fuel and food shortages need resolving, the exchange rate needs to stabilise and the country's wildlife needs restocking -- tasks he claims could take up to 30 years.
A spokeswoman for Expert Africa, which has also continued to offer trips during the travel ban, said that, despite the problems, the country still has much to offer tourists.
"There have been questions raised over the morality of visiting Zimbabwe," she said. "We are very clear where we stand. We use British Airways flights and mostly small, independent safari operations throughout Zimbabwe. These are businesses run by good people whom we have known for years. They work hard to try to pay their staff a living wage, and to protect the animals that live in the parks."
Justin Francis, co-founder of Responsibletravel.com, said travellers must take care to ensure that their spending benefits local initiatives.
"We took the decision -- and it wasn't an easy one -- to keep holidays to Zimbabwe on the website despite the troubles," he said. "We feel that it is possible to continue to visit the country and benefit the local people through your visit. In fact, the trend that we are seeing for the establishment of community-based tourism initiatives around the world began in Zimbabwe and, while we're not out of the woods yet, it's great to see some progress being made."
Taken from telegraph.co.uk