The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has severely undermined its credibility by making an endorsement widely regarded as preposterous: Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe as “leader for tourism”. The blunder is so serious that Canada has withdrawn from UNWTO as a result and other countries, even Australia, may follow.
As Britain’s Guardian newspaper put it: “Improbable as it seems, the Zimbabwean president, who is widely accused of ethnic cleansing, rigging elections, terrorising opposition, controlling media and presiding over a collapsed economy, has been endorsed as a champion of efforts to boost global holidaymaking.”
Mugabe, 88 and generally considered a tyrant, has been honoured as a “leader for tourism” by UNWTO, along with Mugabe’s political ally, 75-year-old Zambian president Michael Sata. The pair signed an agreement with UNWTO secretary general Taleb Rifai at the two countries’ shared border at Victoria Falls last week.
Canada has now withdrawn from UNWTO over the issue. Canadian foreign minister John Baird said correspondence by the UN world tourism office (UNWTO), in which its secretary general reportedly praised Mugabe and Sata, was the “last straw” for the country’s participation.
Zimbabwe’s largest daily newspaper, the state-owned Zimbabwe Herald, carried a gushing account about the meeting at Victoria Falls, quoting Rifai urging international tourists to visit. “I was told about the wonderful experience and the warm hospitality of this country … By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination.”
President Mugabe arrived at Victoria Falls International Airport “to a thunderous reception from flag-waving, singing and feet stamping residents who braved the hot weather to welcome him”, the Zimbabwe Herald dutifully reported.
In welcoming Rifai, Mugabe quipped: “The world will not understand when they hear that you have come and we have not eaten you.”
Rifai interjected saying he would tell them that he was “actually well fed”.
“After this visit many more would want to come after that,” Mugabe said.
Rifai also praised Mugabe for dedicating a full ministry to tourism development.
The deal will also see the two southern African countries co-host the UNWTO general assembly in August next year, the Guardian reported.
Old Africa tourism hands who remember what a magnet for tourists Zimbabwe was before the Mugabe regime virtually bankrupted the country, will regard the UNWTO recommendation with mirth or amazement. Human rights campaigners are equally stunned by it.
The Guardian quoted Kumbi Muchemwa, a spokesman for Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), saying: “I can’t see any justification for the man being an ‘ambassador’. An ambassador for what? The man has blood on his hands. Do they want tourists to see those bloody hands?”
The Madrid-based UNWTO was backpedalling over the weekend, insisting it had not awarded Mugabe an official title. UNWTO said it had not appointed Mugabe to any formal position – he would receive an open letter, as will other heads of state who have joined its “leaders for tourism” campaign.
Although Zimbabwe’s tourism industry has suffered greatly over the past 10 years and the national airline has gone bust, optimists say they can see signs of a gradual recovery. It may be some way off.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) advises visitors to Africa to “reconsider their need to travel” to Zimbabwe – for all sorts of reasons.
DFAT’s advice includes the following points:
- You should avoid demonstrations, street rallies and any political gatherings as they may turn violent. Police and security forces are likely to respond violently and may not distinguish between demonstrators and bystanders.
- The security situation could deteriorate quickly and with little warning, and Australians could be caught up in violence directed at others.
- Health services in Zimbabwe are extremely poor.
- The level of HIV/AIDS infection in Zimbabwe is very high.
- A typhoid outbreak has been reported in some high density areas in Harare. You should ensure your typhoid vaccinations are up to date.
Written by : Peter Needham