TOURISM industry executives terrified by the bloodbath precipitated by Covid-19 pandemic-induced hard lockdowns in 2020 are betting on the recovery of an industry that only three years ago, haemorrhaged at a scale never seen before.
It is a sign of a wave of optimism that has returned to travel markets since governments lifted tough pandemic restrictions late 2021, but only after US$1 billion was wiped out during the first year of upheavals alone.
Two years of Covid-19 induced shutdowns pushed Zimbabwean tourism to the brink, with hundreds of operators teetering into bankruptcy as frightened global travellers retreated to their homes under directives from governments.
Industry regulator, Zimbabwe Tourism Authority statistics showed arrivals plummeted by 90% within nine months of the most severe bloodbath to batter the industry in 40 years.
In response, government promised ZW$50 million (about US$56 000) in cheap funding — a significant bailout at the time — to limit the damage, a noble move that barked the global trend.
Across the world, governments pumped at least US$5 trillion in private sector bailouts.
Yet in Zimbabwe, it was only rhetoric.
During the well subscribed inaugural Twalumba National Tourism Awards las week on Friday, Tourism minister Mangaliso Ndhlovu, who announced the package in 2020, headlined the quintessentially Zimbabwean event.
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He told the executives that the industry veered off the vortex of a deadly meltdown last year, seeing arrivals climb up 174% compared to the 2021 performance, bolstered by governments' bold steps to lift travel restrictions.
But the good thing is, over 400 executives who gathered to celebrate the industry’s achievements in 2022, have already forgotten about the difficult past, and government’s deception around the ZW$50 million bailout.
They picked up the pieces in 2022, growing arrivals by 163% to 895 338 during the 11 months to November, according to the tourism ministry.
This figure was 340 000 in 2021.
The ministry says tourism receipts rocketed by 133% to US$673 million during the period, after closing 2021 at US$288,8 million.
Even as Zimbabwe’s banks maintained their cautious lending strategy, tourism firms invested US$306 million into their businesses, as they marked the first real positive trajectory since 2020.
This figure represented a 239% growth from US$90,4 million in 2021, according to statistics obtained by the Zimbabwe Independent ahead of Friday’s well subscribed event.
The years 2020 and 2021 were a complete tragedy, with drastic slowdowns in occupancy rates to about 5% at the height of the pandemic.
They have since rebounded, hitting 27% in 2021, before climbing up to 44% last year, official data showed.
On Friday, the tourism minister assured the industry that last year’s return to boom times gave him impetus to work around the clock and accelerate recovery.
“We can collectively achieve our shared dreams if we walk together,” Ndlovu told industry leaders, referring to a government push to build a US$5 billion industry by 2025.
“We are continuously on an upward trajectory as a sector. We witnessed a 174% rise in arrivals in 2022.
“The industry is now in a recovery mode. I hope it continues into the future,” he added.
Zimbabwe’s ambition to increase tourism revenue to US$5 billion has been running since 2014 when former tourism minister Walter Mzembi unveiled the national tourism policy.
He would later flee the country as the 2017 coup rattled Harare.
The US$5 billion plan, seemingly achievable before a mayhem of policy missteps from 2019, is one of a few of Mzembi's policies that have been carried along.
Big ambitions, in an economy that has been on its knees for decades, have flopped elsewhere.
In November, the Chamber of Mines of Zimbabwe said a US$12 billion mining economy projected this year was impossible.
Instead, it said industry revenues will come through at US$7 billion.
One of the biggest hurdles confronting tourism is sustained pandemic waves in China, a major source market.
Should infections overwhelm the Chinese government, implications for economies like Zimbabwe would be significant.
While airlines have begun lifting passengers out of Chinese airports with respectable load factors, jitters of a turbulent era are still roiling tourism, and some of China’s estimated 20 million annual travellers are still terrified.
Elsewhere, ramping global inflation and gridlocks in international supply chains are pushing back on consumer spending.
Only destinations offering the best attractions will host the world's big spenders.
But given the agitation to confront headwinds that was exhibited during last week's world class tourism awards, Zimbabwe could still have capacity to reclaim a sizable African market share.
And tourism entrepreneur Emmanuel Fundira, who walked away with the tourism personality of the year award, said he was optimistic.
“We will drive the industry to achieve US$5 billion,” Fundira said. “I think this is achievable.”
Tourism Business Council president Wengayi Nhau was also confident.
There are several corporations like Wild Horizons, which weather storms of a near expulsion from its leased land in Victoria Falls to win two important awards on Friday, which will be the torch bearers as the push for recovery gains traction.
After expending significantly on Cresta Churchill and other units, the Cresta Group is ready to roll along with the tailwinds on Covid-19.
It also clinched two crucial awards during the national event, while global airline Emirates was voted the best in its category. Meikles Hotel walked away with the pursuit of service excellence award, while African Bush Camps founder Becks Ndlovu walked away with the entrepreneur of the award.