Government and politics
[Updated 1/3/2018]: The political changes of late last year have been welcomed and well documented but now that we’ve got used to the fact that Robert Mugabe is no longer president, it’s perhaps time for a brief look at the implications, if any, for tourism in Zimbabwe, now and in the near future. These early months of President Mnangagwa and his new team have seen an avalanche of policy change announcements most of which have been received with a mixture of optimism and scepticism.
Among these are bold promises for tourism in the shape of much needed road improvements and the continuation of domestic airport enlargement and modernisation programmes (both of which already initiated by the previous administration) These of course are massively expensive projects so will depend entirely on loans and foreign aid and of course they’re long term projects so are unlikely to impact tourism revenue for a number of years. As yet we have seen few plans to address the crippling cash shortage that would be the single biggest aid to tourism. Government has also undertaken to further promote tourism to Victoria Falls which is ironic as the sector there has been thriving for years with no shortage of private money to develop itself. On the other hand the rest of the country’s tourism continues to be starved of cash and promotional support leaving most of the country’s ‘jewels’ unloved and unvisited.
Mnangagwa has however achieved one immediate and important tourism benefit. In recent years, motorists, including self-drive foreign tourists, have been plagued by the alarming growth of police roadblocks which existed purely to extract as much money as possible via fines from every conceivable traffic infringement, large, small and often invented. Drive for a day on Zim’s tarred roads and you’d almost certainly get hit by at least 15 of these roadblocks. Despite the fact that it was recognised by many in the previous administration as a major deterrent to this sector of tourism, the huge barrels of cash that were raked in annually just proved too irresistible for the police. But from day one of his reign, the new president began a process of removing old enemies from his party and overturning many of their pet policies. Much of this has been justified by cleaning up corruption but whatever the motive, the previous police chief and his much hated roadblock system was one of the first to be got rid of. But don’t forget, although the roadblocks are all but gone, the cops still have speed guns and can be hot on traffic infringements around town. That said, it’s a relative pleasure to get caught for speeding in Zim compared to the swingeing penalties for the same offence in UK. So this is great news for road-going visitors and already the South African 4x4 drivers are packing their trailers and firing up their engines for the coming season.
Otherwise, everything else is much the same for the tourist. The people have always been delightfully welcoming and friendly but now there’s an added, general upbeat mood around the country.
Zimbabwe remains one of the safest countries in the world to visit, but the shortage of cash continues to be a major problem. More and more transactions are becoming electronic but the infrastructure has yet to mature. So if you are travelling independently you still need to take plenty of cash in US$ but avoid large denominations as you’ll have major problems with change. ATMs, if they’re working at all these days will almost certainly only deliver ‘bond notes’ and even then there will be a limit on how much you can draw. I’d recommend taking several bank cards, (Visa and Maestro but not Amex), if you can as the ATMs can be quite selective.
Prices are generally on the rise as imported goods continue to attract tax hikes but please don’t be put off by Victoria Falls’ rates and prices. This is the country’s prime tourism honeypot and absolutely everything is much cheaper as you travel further away from the ‘Smoke That Thunders’. (Although the privately run, exclusive safari camps in national parks are exceptions to this rule).
A word of warning for those travelling independently to other parts of the country. Since edition 3 of the guidebook was published, there have been significant changes to quite a few of the accommodations with some of them sadly closing down altogether, so please try to contact the ones you are interested in before you arrive there.
Finally then, if Zimbabwe is on your travel list I’d thoroughly recommend you should push it up to the top of your list very quickly. With the change in presidency, tourism is set for a boost in volume, making it once again, and not before time, a deservedly popular place to visit!
Money and budgeting
[Updated 30/06/17] p. 113. Most of the following advice is largely academic if you have prepaid the main elements of your holiday, as the amount of cash you’ll need should only be minimal. But for the independent visitor planning a couple of weeks or more travelling around Zimbabwe, life can be a little more problematic.
The long awaited and highly controversial, ‘Bond Notes’ have been gradually introduced from the end of last year in an effort to redress the chronic shortage of US dollar notes. Even though a number of other hard currencies are still legal tender, the US dollar reigns supreme and exchange rates for alternative currencies can be unrealistic. However, although bond notes are legal tender in Zimbabwe with parity to the US$, they are technically not ‘banknotes’, are worthless outside the country and universally despised by the population for exactly the same reasons as the old Zimbabwe dollar. Currently bond notes supplement the US$ but do not replace them.
So how does this affect visitors, especially independent travellers? The cash crisis has resulted in a huge surge of retail outlets that have been forced to accept credit and debit cards so this at least, has been welcome news. But some retailers are becoming wary of taking plastic payments fearing that some banks will not have the money to honour them. Furthermore, as the banks run out of money you can no longer rely on ATMs. Some will only deliver very limited amounts of cash (probably bond notes), while many others are now empty. As a result US dollars are like gold dust!
As I write this you will find life relatively easy in the completely tourism orientated Victoria Falls but a rather different story in the rest of the country, including the cities of Harare and Bulawayo. So my advice for independent travellers is simple, if somewhat unpalatable. I can only recommend that although your card should be accepted by most large hotels and lodges, always check with your accommodation well in advance. Smaller establishments especially those ‘out-of-town’ will probably only accept cash. Then be sure you bring sufficient US dollars cash for all necessary expenses- fuel, food, entry fees etc. and, even though it’s bulky, try to include a significant proportion of small denomination notes. Only you can decide on the security implications of carrying large amounts of cash around with you and finally of course, ensure that you use up all the bond notes you’ve collected before you leave Zimbabwe as outside the country they’ve got zero value. (So why not simply hand them over to a needy person?)
Before you set out
[Updated 30/06/17] p. 119. Police roadblocks have been an irritating fact of life on Zimbabwe’s roads for a number of years but I’ve always adopted a sanguine approach to them on the basis that if you greet the cops in a friendly and polite manner, they’ll tend to wish you well and wave you on your way without hassle. But I’m sorry to report that approach can no longer be relied upon. There are now many more roadblocks (on my last count there were 10 on the road between Victoria Falls and Bulawayo) and the police are now much more rigorous on the vehicle checks.
As the country plunges ever deeper into bankruptcy the authorities are desperate to find new ways of raising cash and the unfortunate motoring public is clearly a very lucrative source of revenue (reportedly a projected US$60million from fines this year). Roadblocks have now become a complete pain, in town or on the open road and you may be fined under two broad categories – vehicle offences and driving offences. I must say that even though some of the the offences can seem mind bogglingly petty, they are genuine infringements of law and although stories abound, I personally have had no experiences of trumped up charges, corruption etc. (That said, the initial fine demanded is routinely inflated). So when it comes to your vehicle, the old Boy Scouts motto ‘Be Prepared’ is key, and research on the latest traffic requirements is crucial. Unfortunately the authorities are adept at inventing new offences so the situation is ever changing. There are also rumours that all the fines are about to be raised but if that thought horrifies you, just take a moment to compare a US$10 speeding fine with the eye watering penalty you would receive in most western countries, especially UK. (So it’s almost a pleasure to be stopped in dear old Zimbabwe). Currently the maximum roadside fine for a single offence is US$20.
There are several good websites detailing the regulations including www.bigsky.co.zw and you should consult these as things have moved on quite a lot since I wrote the third edition of the guide. Check all the websites you can find and go for the ones with the latest publication date.
Here’s another essential piece of information. Few visitors realise that it’s a legal requirement for traffic police to carry an up-to-date schedule of every traffic offence along with its appropriate fine and you are perfectly entitled to ask the officer to show you ‘the book’ if you have any doubts about the legitimacy of the alleged offence, or its fine. I have done this a couple of times recently and the fines have been miraculously halved. You also have recourse to the police customer relations hotlines mentioned in your Bradt guide if you feel you are being dealt with inappropriately. Just make sure you record the time, place and the officer’s name, warrant number and where he/she is based.
In the meantime, the latest booby traps are: when you approach a roadblock (slowly please) you now have to turn on your hazard lights; and I’ve just discovered that if you import a vehicle with a Temporary Import Permit, the named driver on the TIP doesn’t actually have to be driving but must be in the vehicle at all times. No longer can you simply write a letter authorising your partner to drive your vehicle in your absence.
Whatever the situation though, it’s still vital to be courteous and even-tempered and please bear in mind that despite the frustration of having to stop so often, I’ve invariably found the police to be courteous and never threatening. Keep in mind the old saying ‘Patience is a virtue' and don’t forget, the best way to minimise the chance of fines is to ensure your vehicle is in tip-top condition and try to drive the way you did on the day you passed your test all those years ago!
I appreciate that all the above sounds off-putting and it is certainly having an extremely detrimental effect on the country’s hospitality industry. But while Zimbabwe may no longer be the ideal destination for some first-time drivers in Africa, I’ve just spent several months in Zimbabwe and bumped into quite a few folk who were having a fine time touring the country and relishing the fact that they usually had the attraction they were visiting, as well as the accommodation, all to themselves without being surrounded by crowds of other tourists.
[Updated 12/1/2018]: p. 304. ThisAndThat Safaris (phone: + 263 776531258, email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.thisandthatsafaris.com)