PREPARATIONS for the hosting of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly on Saturday in Victoria Falls are being wrapped up.
Momentum for the event started gathering pace when President Robert Mugabe, his Zambian counterpart, Michael Sata, and UNWTO secretary-general Talib Rifai signed a tripartite agreement at a colourful ceremony on the Victoria Falls Bridge in May last year.
The two countries were seized with upgrading infrastructure to host the event under the watchful eye of UNWTO inspectors, who periodically jetted in from their base in Madrid, Spain, to monitor progress.
On Saturday, Victoria Falls and Livingstone will be a hive of activity to mark the official opening of the international tourism indaba.
The Zimbabwean government and tourism officials have expressed satisfaction with the progress. Tourism and Hospitality Industry minister Walter Mzembi recently said 65 countries had been accredited, which translates to an excess of 650 room bookings.
He said 15 countries are on the waiting list. Mzembi said all hotels in Victoria Falls were fully booked and residents were letting out their houses to accommodate delegates.
Tour operators have been singing the same tune. President of the National Employers’ Association for the Tourism and Safari Operators and Shearwater Adventures public relations manager Clement Mukwasi yesterday said their members were fully prepared for the UNWTO conference.
“We are more than prepared in aviation and as an industry we have just concluded training our personnel for VIP handling,” he said.
However, it has not all been smooth sailing for Zimbabwe, as the lead up to the indaba has been a tale of missed opportunities and false promises.
Revelations by former Tourism and Hospitality Industry permanent secretary Sylvester Maunganidze that Zimbabwe lied in its bid to host the event raised alarm bells at the level of unpreparedness then.
For his troubles, he lost his job.
Maunganidze had told the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Environment and Tourism that the country had a to win the bid to co-host the UNWTO General Assembly with Zambia.
According to the bid, Zimbabwe had proposed to build a 4 000 seater convention centre to host the general conference, but before its inception confusion reigned supreme, with government officials bickering over the issue.
This saw Mzembi and Zimbabwe Tourism Authority chief executive officer Karikoga Kaseke going on a warpath over the convention centre.
Kaseke pronounced that the inclusive government was content to host the mega event at a temporary structure that was to be erected on Africa Sun Limited’s Elephant Hills resort golf course, but there were political figures pushing for the construction of a new convention centre, with a sitting capacity of up to 4 000 people.
Delivering a public lecture at the University of Zimbabwe, Mzembi said it made no economic sense to host the international delegates in a marquée.
“There is a school of thought that is saying we should use a tent,” Mzembi charged then.
“This is an indication of a small vision. In 2010, the South African government put everything on hold and concentrated on building world-class stadiums, which will continue being a legacy in many years to come.
“You are faced with a similar event and all one can think of is (private events management company) Rooney’s. We pitch a tent and dismantle it after the event, then what?
“If those in decision-making at the time had decided against building Rainbow Towers Hotel to make use of a temporary structure (when Zimbabwe hosted the Non-Aligned Movement leaders’ summit 20 years ago), the country would have lost on a lot of opportunities and revenue by now.”
The new convention centre, he said, could still be built, but not in time for the event.
Outgoing Public Works minister Gabbuza Joel Gabuza revealed that the government was broke to raise the money needed for the construction of a permanent convention centre.
“About $300 million is needed for the construction of the convention centre and the government cannot raise that money,’’ he had said then.
However, it was later agreed to build a semi-permanent structure for the event, and in line with Transport secretary Munesu Monodawafa’s recommendations, the government was to build an aluminium glass fabrication structure, which will last for up to 20 years.
Then came the construction of a new terminal and runaway at the Victoria Falls International Airport, which was also characterised with setbacks.
As it dawned, it was not feasible to complete the project for the event, the government made a U-turn and said in fact, the existing infrastructure could accommodate the air traffic, as it had done during the Comesa Summit.
The planned duaiIisation of the Airport Road to Victoria Falls central business district also failed to materialise and instead authorities opted to expand the road by a few metres and resurface it.
The project was a “rushed job”, and the contractor had to resurface some parts of the 23km stretch.
As for the upgrading of the Victoria Falls Hospital, that is a completely missed target, as construction is still underway.
Besides missed targets in infrastructure, there was also a lot of discord between government officials and tour operators, with the most recent being the ban of helicopters by Mzembi, which has riled tour operators.
Although it is now certain that the event is kicking off on Saturday, Zimbabwe’s preparations have been a tale of missed targets.