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Zimbabwe asks SA for tourism bailout

Zimbabwe is now turning to other African countries, including South Africa, to raise money to host the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) general assembly in Victoria Falls in August. It became clear during a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday that the government would not be able to provide the required $11.2-million in funding.

Information gathered by the Mail & Guardian this week indicated that Zimbabwe Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi, who has been to several countries to market the event, which Harare sees as an opportunity to revamp its battered image and attract investment, was due to travel to South Africa this week to look for funds to host the event to avert potential embarrassment for the country.

The conference is one of the few major international events to be held in Zimbabwe in the years after the country plunged into international isolation owing to the political and economic meltdown prior to 2009.

"Frantically running around"
"Mzembi was expected to fly to Pretoria this week to meet with his counterpart, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, to discuss how South Africa could help financially and via other means," said an official involved in the preparations.

"He has been frantically running around to ensure the success of the conference, which is a major investment opportunity and chance for Zimbabwe to show it has been rehabilitated from international isolation," he added.

Mzembi said he could "not discuss the country's shopping list in the media", but confirmed that Zimbabwe was seeking "capacity-building" assistance from its neighbour.

However, the chief director of communications in the South Africa tourism department Trevor Bloem said on Thursday there was no meeting scheduled between the two ministers in coming weeks. But he said Minister van Schalkwyk meets with Mzembi regularly just as he meets other ministers in the region. He said there had been no request from Zimbabwe for funding, adding that Mzembi had always indicated in meetings with South Africa that Zimbabwe had the budget to host the event jointly with Zambia.

But sources close to the preparations said that, among other requests, Mzembi would ask Van Schalkwyk for an increase in the number of South African Airways flights to Zimbabwe as Air Zimbabwe would not cope, and for the possibility of other guests being accommodated in South Africa. It was not clear who would pick up the cost.

The government was expected to disburse $6.5-million from its own budget, but nothing has been paid out. Instead private companies Mbada Diamonds, Econet and Telecel have stepped in to help.

Mbada has promised $2.5-million, including paying for a publicity blitz on international media platforms. So far the company has disbursed $600 000. Besides this contribution, Mbada is also going to fund the opening ceremony, including the venue, logistics and meals.

A $150-million loan
Zimbabwe obtained a $150-million loan from the China Import-Export Bank to refurbish infrastructure, including airports, roads and hotels, ahead of the event, although most of the work is behind schedule and some projects, including building a new convention centre with a seating capacity of 4 500 in Victoria Falls, have been abandoned.

On Tuesday, the Cabinet failed to commit resources to the event after it was suggested the $6.5-million would come only when diamonds had been sold. Finance Minister Tendai Biti has made it clear that the conference is not among his funding priorities.

To get things on track, Mzembi has now hired a South Africa professional conference organiser after attempts by sections of government to use the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair Company were rejected by the minister. The minister has also engaged the Conventions Africa consultancy to help to raise funds. The company managed to source the $2.5-million from Mbada.

Conventions Africa spokesperson Susanna Makombe said this week the consultancy was confident it would raise enough funds for the tourism conference as it was now targeting the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.

The consultancy has been given clearance by the UN tourism organisation to raise the money.

To complement Conventions Africa's efforts, the government has now set up a UNWTO corporate-resource mobilisation trust to help to raise funds. The trust, chaired by local businessman Herbert Nkala, includes Aaron Mushoriwa, Susanna Kuhudzayi, Margaret Sangarwe, Obadiah Mazombwe, Judith Kateera, Obert Munyaradzi and Wendy Mandizira.

Preparations for the conference have been beset by other problems. Canada pulled out last year after Zimbabwe won the bid to host the event, protesting that President Robert Mugabe could not be the face of the tourism showpiece to be co-hosted with Zambia, given his controversial human-rights record.

The government was also rocked by embarrassing revelations after tourism ministry permanent secretary Sylvester Maunganidze last year disclosed in Parliament that Harare had won the bid fraudulently by "lying" to the UN tourism organisation about its financial and infrastructure capacity. Soon after, Maunganidze was moved to the public service ministry.

And the situation has been worsened by infighting among ministers and their subordinates about how to organise the conference. Similarly, the land grab by senior Zanu-PF officials of vast tracts in the Save Valley Conservancy — the largest private conservancy in the world — has also threatened the country's chances of hosting the conference, as European Union members and other countries have been protesting against it, warning that they might pull the plug on the conference if the situation is not addressed.

Mzembi has opposed the seizures, clashing with Environment Minister Francis Nhema on the issue.

  The UNTWO's membership includes 155 countries, seven territories and more than 400 affiliate members.

Zimbabwe is expecting more than 4 000 delegates and thousands of ordinary visitors, investors and journalists.

Zimbabwe was recently ranked 118 out of 140 countries in terms of its travel and tourism attractiveness by a World Economic Forum study.

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