For those who were unable to attend and who have seen the somewhat distorted news reports about the event, following is the text of the remarks I gave at the session after the opening ceremony of the Africa Travel Association (ATA) 37th Annual World Congress on May 19th in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe:
“Good afternoon, and please allow me to join the chorus of voices welcoming you to Zimbabwe. For those of you visiting Zimbabwe for the first time, I think you are in for a pleasant surprise, as you experience the wonders of the country and the warmth of the people. For local delegates, this is your chance to showcase an industry with great growth potential, and to demonstrate that Zimbabwe is ‘open for business.’
I can tell you that when I arrived in Zimbabwe towards the end of 2009, I was pleasantly surprised. Going by what I had read in the newspapers up to then, I expected to encounter the four horsemen of the Apocalypse on my way into town from the airport. Instead, I met many people who were delighted to welcome an American visitor to their country – and immediately dispense advice on all the things I needed to do and see during my stay. I have followed that advice and made a point of visiting every part of the country I could reach, at every opportunity. For instance, on the way here to Victoria Falls, my wife and I made a stop at Hwange National Park. There are rivers and mountains in the Eastern Highlands, the dramatic landscape of the Chimanimani Hills, the broad horizons of the Lowveld, the rolling hills of Matebeland and the Matopos, the history-laden Great Zimbabwe, amazing national parks, Lake Karibe, the Victoria Falls, and much more.
And Zimbabwe has much more than places to go and things to do. The country is also full of Zimbabweans, and I urge you to meet as many of them as you can.
An American who has been resident in Zimbabwe for most of the last two decades said it best, “I came to Zimbabwe because of the landscape and the wildlife. I stayed because of the people.”
You may have already noticed that the people of Zimbabwe are busy. They have their hands full rebuilding an economy that is rebounding from a decade of stagnation. Over the past three years, Zimbabwe’s economy has grown at an average annual rate of about 7 percent. The mining industry is expanding rapidly, agriculture is diversifying as it grows, and entrepreneurs across the country have driven a remarkable recovery of the retail sector.
The tourism industry in Zimbabwe is also moving forward. As you will see over the next few days, Victoria Falls is once again the destination of a growing flow of visitors. Hotel occupancy in Victoria Falls is high and rising, I am told. And growing numbers of visitors from Europe, the Americas, and Asia are rediscovering other destinations in Zimbabwe.
The bottom line is this: Zimbabwe is open for business.
At the same time, I must also note that this country, so richly blessed with talented people and natural endowments, faces serious challenges. There are deep political divisions that sometimes make it difficult for leaders to respond to the most important day-to-day concerns of the Zimbabwean people. Zimbabweans from every segment of the political spectrum are engaged in a national dialogue that should reduce political polarization and propel the country forward. But, reconciliation takes time and patience.
It is also true that the governments of the United States and Zimbabwe do not always see eye to eye on important issues. But, one view that I believe is consistently shared by leaders in Zimbabwe and the United States is that renewal of this country’s economy is good for the Zimbabwean people, and collaboration between American and Zimbabweans can be good for both our countries. This is particularly true for the tourism sector.
Americans can be wowed by one of the natural wonders of the world, see some of the best wildlife on the planet, and see the ruins of an amazing empire that flourished centuries ago – all over the course of a week or two.
In return, tourism revenues will help promote conservation efforts, will support Zimbabwe’s preservation of its natural and cultural heritage, and will foster better understanding between our peoples.
I certainly hope this will be the case, because the tourism sector in Zimbabwe will bring something that everyone recognizes as vitally for this country, the entire region, and the world: Jobs. The tourism industry and other service sectors of the economy hold great promise for creating new opportunities for millions of Zimbabweans who are ready and able to work, add value, and innovate.
I’d also like to point out that tourism, in addition to the economic benefits, is an important, but often overlooked, element of international relations. It builds bridges between people that are more lasting and equal in importance to relations between governments.
During your stay in Zimbabwe, I urge you to listen, see, and learn. Go tee off over the water buck at Elephant Hills, see some elephants, bungee jump (if you’re the type), have a drink at the Safari Lodge overlooking the watering hole at sunset, enjoy the traditional African buffet at the Boma, and stand in the mist beside the falls.
Zimbabwe offers a World of Wonders for you to explore. You may be surprised by what you find.