Walter Mzembi is Zimbabwe Minister of Tourism and Hospitality, an Engineer by profession as well the longest serving minister of tourism in Africa; now campaigning as a candidate for the United Nations World Tourism Organisation [UNWTO], Secretary General, the second African to put himself forward after late Nigerian Matts Ebaboje Da Silva in the early 80s. In this interview with Lucky Onoriode George in Togo recently, he articulates his vision and mission for the industry.
Why are you here in Togo?
I am here as the guest of the Togolese Government and to also present a position paper at the on-going Africa Hotel Investment Forum [AHIF].
Again, to also present my candidature for the position of the Secretary general of the UNWTO to his Excellency, President Faure Gnassingbé for Togo’s support and that of the region.
Basically, to state the obvious, am here to address the net deficit of Africa tourism. As you are aware, the continent’s tourist arrivals have fallen to -3 per cent in 2015 and the future projections are not too encouraging as well, of which I strongly believe that if we have an African at the helm of the UNWTO, we will reverse and bring attention to Africa’s challenges.
I was privileged to have met with His Excellency before I was designated accompany minister when he visited Zimbabwe, but could not stay with him throughout the visit because I had to travel abroad again on another official engagement.
From what I know too, Togo is also working very hard to develop its eco-tourism potentials alongside its neighbours to attract more visitors, just like we are doing in Southern Africa with Kavango Zambezi [KAZA], comprising five southern African countries: Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is centred on the Caprivi-Chobe-Victoria Falls area.
KAZA TFCA process historically evolved from the Okavango Upper Zambezi International Tourism Initiative [OUZIT]. However, unlike its predecessor, the KAZA TFCA initiative is owned and led by the governments of the five partner-countries. There is a clear focus on conservation as the primary form of land use, and on tourism as a by-product.
It encourages ownership by the five countries and reflects the priorities determined by these countries. The meeting articulated a clear vision for the KAZA TFCA: ‘To establish a world-class trans-frontier conservation area and tourism destination in the Okavango and Zambezi river basin regions of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe within the context of sustainable development.
Most importantly, to provide opportunities, facilities and infrastructure that shall transform the KAZA TFCA into a premier tourist destination in Africa, made up of a range of independent yet complementary and integrated sub-regional tourism development.
Similar experience can be done in West Africa – Again during drought as we are experiencing now, caused by ‘El Nino’ eco-tourism locations like Togo, will be considered first for relocation of wildlife before outside Africa.
Like other parts of the world, we must push tourism to serve as buffer to our economy, now that oil and manufacturing are all failing. Finally on this, we would find a way to have a travel balance because more Africans preferred to go outside the continent, instead of within.
We are here in Togo and I am sure many that are here may have connected through Europe before getting here, how does that affect our tourism arrival efforts?
So sad that we African have not been able to take advantage of our huge population to develop our aviation, and tourism industry properly.
The Yammosoukkou Declaration of 1988 was a missed opportunity for African countries to capitalise on to develop, especially its aviation sector.
Shamefully again, African Union [AU] has no tourism agenda, but people like me will continue to push for and campaign for the inclusion of travel and tourism content on AU agenda, though efforts are already being made in this regards.
Training is a major issue, how do we achieve good training for our travel and tourism administrators?
I think we have a good start already with the various geo-political structures on the continent.
When you look at Southern Africa Development Commission [SADC], which has a subsidiary tourism body for the region, just like the East Africa body with its own tourism body, same goes for the Arab-speaking Africans, so, why not West Africa, the most populated region of Africa.
With the aforementioned in place, it’s easier to push for tourism integration and cooperation on the continent. To also develop ‘brand Africa’ project, it’s easier to work along regional level as I have explained before, rather than country to country basis because in future visitors will prefer regional packages rather than country by country packages.
What will be your major tasks if you emerged as the new UNWTO Secretary General?
My first major task will be to speed those disadvantaged parts of the world to acceptable level of tourism development and awareness, as well as establishing county by country representative or regional offices to better serve our industry.
Other specialised United Nations Agencies have regional offices and country representatives across the world, why not tourism, world’s largest employer of labour?
Again, there are some big players that are not members of the fraternity at the moment; we have to bring them into the fold. The Likes of the United Kingdom [UK], United States of America [USA], Canada and Australia not being members of the UNWTO is a setback to Africa and the rest of the world.
It’s unimaginable that the aforementioned countries are not members of a UN organ. However, going forward, the UN will have to look inward to say no member nation will be allowed to belong to any of its agency on voluntary basis any more.
Perhaps, a good proposal will have to be put forward to those members currently not part of the UNWTO. These issues will be my very first set of tasks to be addressed, if I emerged as successor to Rafai Taleb.
Meanwhile, we will package, the following and put them forward to all members of the UN that currently stands at 192 nations and territories, whereas the UNWTO membership is below 100 as at today.
Firstly, to properly spell out the benefits and relationship between destinations and source markets, and that there is value in belonging.
Secondly, the challenges of our modern tourism activities that demand that we work together to find solutions than national prescriptions to challenges that are affecting us. Imagine issues of tourism and security excluding the United States, Canada, Australia and United Kingdom, some of the major source markets in the world is inconceivable for anyone to think that the rest of the world alone can find solutions.
Thirdly, the issue that the world is talking about now, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals [SDG’s], cannot be complete without the participation of those four countries.
Finally and fourth, is the issue of global inclusive growth and citizen diplomacy, because there is benefit in belonging to one body.
What was the membership of UN specialised agencies [UNWTO] optional in the first place?
That is why 2017 is a special year, because it has been designated as International Year for Sustainable Tourism Development, and we need to take our case to the United Nations for a debate that how can Permanent Security Council Members be marked absent in a major agency of the UN? I don’t think there have been enough discussions on this too.
What should Africa expect from you, because in most cases, the world doesn’t seem to understand Africa’s challenges properly?
The most important thing is for Africa to have someone in Madrid that the world can understand and Africa can trust. Whoever that is to occupy the UNWTO position should not just be tourism marketing or promotion advocate, but an international statesman that understands tourism value.
How many of your colleagues and past ministers have you reached out to, being one of the longest serving ministers in the world?
Gladly enough, we are a fraternity; once a minister, always one because the job exposes you to the world and people’s cultures.
I am not the longest though, am behind the Azerbaijani tourism minister that has been there for 23 years and the Cuban tourism minister that has stayed for 18 years and I am number three in the world and dean of Africa’s tourism ministers spending my 9th year in office.
From where we are now, I can provide institutional memories from 2008 to now which I think Africa can leverage on as well as the world because of my experience.
Charity they say begins at home, what is the state of the tourism industry in Zimbabwe?
On my deployment in 2008, tourism was contributing about $200 million to the economy, but today, it’s over a $1 billion and we are signing posting for 2016, a 4.1 per cent sectorial growth ahead of mining and manufacturing sectors.
I can also confirm to you that we have also embarked on infrastructural development, especially our airports that are being upgraded.
Victoria Falls International Airport is being upgraded to handle more passengers up to 2 million from half a million yearly. Runways at Harare and Bulawayo Airports are also not left out, as well as our land border posts, there is no magic in tourism because you must receive visitors.