Mugabe named Tourist Ambassador?

The UN insists no official role has been bestowed.

The United Nations (UN) tourism body has insisted that President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has not been awarded an official title, after he and his Zambian counterpart were asked to be “tourism ambassadors.”

Both local and international media reported on the shocked and indignant reaction to the news that Mugabe and Zambia’s Michael Sata had been selected as tourism leaders. This follows news that the two countries will jointly host the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly in 2013.

The UN has since been strongly criticised with some reports stating the decision to choose Mugabe as a ‘tourism leader’ was hypocritical, because of the UN’s commitment to human rights. Other reports said the decision brings the UN’s credibility into question.

But the UN grouping has insisted that no official honour or ambassadorial role has been bestowed on Mugabe or Sata. The UN says it is simply trying to encourage the African nations to promote tourism as a valuable source of revenue.

Sandra Carvao, UNWTO’s co-ordinator of communications, said: “UNWTO has presented both presidents with an open letter which calls for them to support tourism as a means to foster sustainable development in their countries to the benefit of their people and consequently ask them to support the sector in this respect.”

She added: “UNWTO does not have an ambassadors programme and the receiving of the UNWTO open letter implies no legal commitment or title attribution to the country or the head of state or government in question.”

The move however is still being criticised “as a questionable embrace of Mugabe as a tourism envoy, despite the ageing dictator remaining under targeted international sanctions,” said the independent Zimbabwe broadcaster,  South West Radio Africa, which operates out of London.

Mugabe remains on Western targeted sanctions lists for human rights abuses and vote rigging, and Zimbabwe is still trying to recover after years of governmental failures under the ZANU PF regime. These failures include the destruction of the economy through corruption, destruction of agriculture because of the land grab, and destruction of basic infrastructures Tourism has also been affected, with rampant poaching and land seizures leaving the country’s once rich environment with dwindling wildlife.

The economy remains battered, human rights abuses are still being reported and concern is once again rising as the country faces a fresh election under Mugabe’s control.

Exiled Zimbabwe journalist Makusha Mugabe told SW Radio Africa that the UN’s decision is therefore “laughable,” especially coming so soon after another MDC member was murdered by ZANU PF over the weekend of May 26th-27th. He questioned whether the UN is  “fit for purpose.”

Re-branding  Zimbabwe

In an article entitled “Mugabe hijacks tourism title” South African newspaper, the  Mail & Guardian  looked at how Mugabe’s handlers in the Zanu-PF party had skilfully exploited the signing event at Victoria Falls to prop up his image and announce that the 88-year-old leader has in fact been chosen to be the UN’s tourism ambassador.

Walter Mzembi, the Zanu-PF-linked Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister tasked with leading the turnaround of tourism in the country, declared the veteran leader a “tourist attraction” and a “national treasure” that tourists would flock to see.

But Canada pulled out of the signing event and later out of the UNWTO itself. Political analyst and former Zimbabwean diplomat Clifford Mashiri applauded Canada’s decision, saying it is a sign that the UN as a whole should refocus its efforts if it wants to remain credible as a global human rights defender.

After years of economic collapse, tourism is on the rebound in Zimbabwe and the recovery has been underpinned by the big plans the government has embarked on for the organisation’s general assembly. Victoria Falls airport will be refurbished, and $300m has been set aside to build a state-of-the-art convention centre that will seat between 3 000 and 5 000 guests, as well a five-star hotel and gymnasium.

International airlines have also made inroads into the country once again after a decade-long absence linked to political and economic uncertainty. The airlines have pledged to increase the frequency of flights to Zimbabwe as demand soars. In 2011, tourism raked in more than $360m , and the projection for 2012 is that it will contribute 12% to gross domestic product.

Sylvester Maunganidze, the permanent secretary of the tourism and hospitality industry ministry, said: “We now have access to tourism meetings in countries that have imposed sanctions on us and we are taking advantage of that to repackage, rebrand and market the country as a safe tourism destination.”

Walter Mzembi, commenting on UNWTO status, said:”The two leaders [Mugabe and Sata] have shown that tourism is critical to the development of Africa by naming it among the four pillars of economic development,” The Herald newspaper reported from Harare.

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