Zimbabwe has been in the news a lot recently, but not in terms of travel. By now, most know that the landlocked country was the scene of Cecil the Lion’s death. But if you've really been paying attention, you know that it has also been making headlines for being the scene of one of the worst cases of inflation in modern history. Because of this, where tourism is concerned, Zimbabwe has been mostly off of mainstream travel radars.
Typically, South Africa gets all the glory when it comes to visiting the continent; but Zimbabwe was actually once considered one of Africa’s most beautiful destinations. Over the years, under President Robert Mugabe's regime, political unrest has kept tourists from adding it to their travel wish lists. Yet, Peggy Goldman, Founder of Friendly Planet Travel still believes that the destination is worth a visit. "The country faces poverty and political corruption, unfortunate situations for any country, but it is also blessed with amazing physical beauty and is in a part of Africa with a rich wildlife center that has the resources and infrastructure to protect tourists."
According to CNN, “Tourism collapsed when white farmers were driven from their land, and famine and hyperinflation ensued.” The Telegraph reported that monthly inflation was 2,600.2 percent in 2008 and “rocketed to an astronomical 231 million percent.” One US dollar was worth Z$180 and the cost of an egg was 50 billion Zimbabwean dollars. This year, Zimbabwe started retiring its local currency in favor of the US dollar. “A four-year unity government, that ended in 2013 with President Robert Mugabe's re-election, helped stabilize the economy but it still faces huge challenges,” reports the BBC.
In 2013, the country slowly began to see tourists returning to its land, although hotel occupancy was still at a low. CNN noted that during that same year, Hilton was said to be considering a five-star, $145 million hotel in the capital and luxury projects began popping up, including a proposed $70 million Mall of Zimbabwe. Two years later, we're left wondering if the country has made any evident turn-arounds? Did Hilton and other luxury hotels open their proposed properties? I spoke with industry professionals, risk analysts and on-the-ground travel agents who discussed the country’s current state, the safety of tourists and what areas to stick to when visiting.
As I began digging around and querying various experts, I found that there was an almost unanimous vote in support of visiting Zimbabwe. Of course, they all also noted going with an established travel agency is essential to having a safer visit. “I was born and bred in this incredible country and am so excited that it is back on the international tourist map. It's a very safe destination,” said Keith Vincent, Wilderness Safaris CEO. “It's obviously always a good idea to book any safari through a renowned travel specialist who knows the destination well and can create the perfect itinerary.”
Many industry experts, like Co-CEO of smarTours Greg Geronemus, even shifted the conversation by saying, “The question is not ‘If you should travel to Zimbabwe,’ it’s, ‘How quickly can you get there?’ Home to Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world and amazing wildlife, it's one of the highlights of any trip to Southern Africa.”
On the other end of the stick, Global Rescue CEO Dan Richards issued warnings for travelers. “In spite of the county's beauty and natural attractions, societal problems make travel to Zimbabwe a risky proposition. Zimbabwe is still reeling from the policies of the Marxist leadership, rampant corruption, failed economic policies that have led to hyperinflation and the collapse of the economy in 2009,” cautioned Richards. “The State Department's Overseas Advisory Council (OSAC) rates the crime situation in Zimbabwe as Critical.” Richards went on to say that street crimes, smash-and-grab assaults, marked and unmarked checkpoints, break-ins and weapons are a very common threat.
Pretty varying degrees of sentiment. So which is true? Well, both. When you think about it though, the US isn’t much different these days in terms of violence. Not that we can compare the two exactly, but mass killings in churches, movie theaters and classrooms are becoming more and more common. We’re no longer living in the days of leaving your front door unlocked and walking all the way up to airport gates to welcome home loved ones.
Clearly, the threat level is much higher in Zimbabwe, but the underlying message is that no matter where you are, be cautious of your surroundings. Specifically with travel, it is always a good idea to locate your nearest embassy before or upon arrival into a country, and have an emergency plan in place should something go wrong on your trip.
“It was certainly safe for me and my group and the many tourists and families traveling that I spoke with. However get used to road stoppages by guards for seemingly no reason whatsoever,” said Mark Stiles Chief Vacation Officer at Blaycation. “They flag you down from the bushes sometimes looking to ensure you have all your paperwork etc. It's a sign of the struggling economy where a small bribe will get you on your way too. Although this seemed to be more stops than normal for our travel group, we were left feeling safe and were genuinely welcomed with open arms.”
Photo Credit: Linkwasha Camp
Two years ago, the hotel industry was seeing a rise in visitors, but was still failing to maintain full occupancy. This year, however, tourism is beginning to pick up speed. “Zimbabwe used to be at the forefront of luxury safaris, with a lot of star safari guides coming from Zimbabwe,” shared Hajar Ali, Founder of Urbane Nomads. Whilst that honor now belongs to Botswana, Zimbabwe is slowly coming back on the radar of luxury safari companies. When South-African based Singita opened a lodge in Zimbabwe, that was a clear signal that Zimbabwe is now back on the radar.”
Although Hilton proposed a new property in Harare, the worldwide brand has yet to see that plan come to fruition. In 2014, Tourism and Hospitality Industry Deputy Minister Walter Kanhanga said the multi-million Hilton Hotel and office complex was open to other investors. Whether the potential risk factors or lack of interest from tourists hampered efforts for the hotel, we’re not sure. "We are actively developing our presence across Africa and consider opportunities in all markets where we are in a position to grow our portfolio. We currently do not have any hotels under development in Zimbabwe, however will explore all future opportunities with potential investors," said Dan Corfield, Senior Manager, Corporate Communications, Middle East and Africa.
Photo Credit: The Victoria Falls Hotel
One property that did open this year though, is Linkwasha Camp in Hwange National Park, about a three-hour drive from Victoria Falls. The luxury glamping retreat is in close proximity to the Ngamo Plains, which offers eight en-suite tents, year-round wildlife viewing and “the quality of high-end Botswana camps,” according to Robb Report. Each tent features contemporary interiors, ceiling fans, private verandas and outdoor showers.
If glamping isn’t your cup of tea, The Victoria Falls Hotel is a great option and sits in the center of the major tourist hub. Most travel agents agree that this is the go-to spot for all vacationers, which makes it a good home-base for your first Zimbabwe trip. The award-wining hotel is also one of the oldest in Africa and is known for its five-star accommodations, impeccable service, exceptional facilities and the Livingstone Room, voted one of the Best Hotel Restaurants in the World by The Daily Meal.
Zimbabwe is a gorgeous destination with wide open spaces and a plethora of wildlife to discover. It is also home to some of the best weather, especially between June and October. That being said, at this time, there are areas that are safer than others. A few recommended places to explore are Victoria Falls, the Mana Pools, Hwange National Park and Lake Kariba.
When it comes to safaris, one thing travelers often forget, is to use common sense around the animals. Your Instagram shot is not worth losing an arm over! “Africa is not a zoo. Lions are real and they bite. You cannot expect to move in the night around the camp like it is your backyard. There are some basic rules you need to follow (like do not stand in the jeep while doing a safari). But you will be informed by the guides, just listen to them,” cautioned David Trallero, CEO of LookIwasThere.
Before You Go
The Center for Disease Control & Prevention states that travelers should be up-to-date on routine vaccines—measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, varicella (chickenpox) and polio—but will also need to get the Hepatitis A, Malaria and Typhoid vaccines. Some visitors may also be advised to get the Yellow Fever, Rabies and Hepatitis B vaccines. One of the best ways to avoid sickness is to try and avoid bug bites by covering exposed skin (as much as possible), using insect repellant, applying permethrin-treated clothing and gear and of course, use a bed net. Also be sure to use a long-lasting repellent that contains 20 percent or more DEET for protection.
If you’re still hesitant to plan a trip to Zimbabwe, consider tacking it on to the beginning or end of an African getaway. Plan for two- to three-days in the country in conjunction with travels to Zambia, South Africa and Botswana. The Zambezi River divides Zimbabwe and Zambia, so it is a common country-hop. Plus, you'll get to see a lot more of the continent. Lastly, if you do go, a few things to expect are inner and outer city roadblocks, unreliable Internet access and a lack of ATMs. Zimbabwe accepts the US dollar, Euro, South African rand, British pounds and the Botswana pula.