Tourist arrivals in Zimbabwe maintained an upward trend in 2014, surging to 2 million foreign visitors from 1.8 million the previous year - a major boost for a country badly trying to rebrand itself as a desirable destination that it once was.
The news Tuesday came on the heels of a vote of confidence by the renowned U.S. newspaper, the New York Times, which named Zimbabwe as one of the top 52 destinations tourists should visit this year.
Zimbabwe ranked No.14, beating other fashionable African countries like Tanzania, popular for its Serengeti National Park and neighboring South Africa with its Cape Town beaches.
Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi was sanguine about the arrivals and the future prospects, telling VOA government was targeting 5 million visitors per annum by year 2020.
“I am posting a $5 billion tourism economy by 2020,” he said. “I know that the national budget is $4.1 billion and many people may dismiss me as being naïve to imagine that the tourism sector alone can command $5 billion by 2020… but it can be done.”
For the past decade or so, visitors have been shunning Zimbabwe over its poor human rights record and political upheavals, opting instead for neighboring countries like Botswana, South Africa and Zambia.
As the Zimbabwean story unfolded, the Western media in particular stood front and center on its coverage, often portraying the country as a lawless place that posed risk for any foreign tourists.
But the weekend endorsement by the New York Times brought smiles to government officials who have struggles over the years to counter the negative publicity.
“This country’s beauty and bounty have been overshadowed by political unrest and economic collapse over the last few decades, but today, the government is finally stable, the overinflated Zimbabwean dollar is gone, and the prices are low,” the New York Times said.
“There’s the spectacular Victoria Falls, the Zambezi, UNESCO World Heritage sites like the granite landform Matopo Hills and the colonial charm of cities like Harare.
“The biggest draw, however, might be the abundance of game, including hippos and lions, on full view on water safaris, like those offered by the new luxury cruiser Matusadona, or the old-fashioned way, by land, at upscale lodges like Bomani Tented Lodge in Hwange National Park,” the newspaper said graciously.
And Minister Mzembi was appreciative.
“It’s an endorsement of brand Zimbabwe, coming as it does on the back of a very successful 2013 when we hosted the UNWTO General Assembly the 20th Session which was attended by an excess of 144 countries,” Mzembi said.
“I think it registered with the world that we are a peaceful destination secure with a very attractive product, as it were.”