Tourism is public diplomacy plus wealth creation’

China will host the 22nd United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) General Assembly in September and the significance of this event cannot be overestimated. Elections for the UNWTO Secretary-General will be held next Thursday and Friday in Madrid, Spain. Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister Walter Mzembi, who has been endorsed as the African Union candidate, will slug it out against Vahan Martirosyan from Armenia, Márcio Favilla (Brazil), Jaime Alberto Cabal Sanclemente (Colombia), Zurab Pololikashvili (Georgia), Young-shim Dho (Republic of Korea) and Seychelles’ Alain St Ange.

The winner will assume office at the UNWTO General Assembly from September 4-9 in Chengdu, China.

Below are excerpts of an interview I did with Minister Mzembi in during my time in China, about his thoughts soon after he attended the First World Conference on Tourism for Development.

Q: What role can tourism play to bring about global peace at a time the world seems to be grappling with several security issues?
A: Tourism has a natural patent to soft power and it should be deployed in public and people-to-people diplomacy.

It is not hard power alone that will defeat terrorism, it is complementary action from soft power that will ultimately win because terrorism is conceived and transported in the mind.

It is an ideological mindset and the citizen diplomacy will overwhelm terror because you cannot ask seven billion people to stay at home – 1,2 billion people are already part of the travelling revolution.

These numbers will increase exponentially in the next decade considering that in 1950 there were just 25 million international travellers. The sheer force and economic impact of this industry and the mere prospect of deleting $7 trillion from the global balance sheet brought through tourism will compel unity of purpose and engagement to this threat.

Q: Do you think governments and other stakeholders in the tourism industry are awake to this point?
A: We have not, as global tourism leadership, sufficiently unpacked the economic argument for protecting this sector. It is still viewed as an attack on some elitist lifestyles.

The United Nations Year on Tourism is, therefore, an opportunity to pitch safe, secure and seamless travel at the highest inter-governmental level.

None of us is safe from the scourge of terror and, therefore, an attack on humankind, no matter how geographically remote or distant, is an attack on us all.

The terror problem is rampant and requires global solutions. It also should not just deal with outcomes and symptoms, but go to the causes of what really causes terror.

We must look critically at current sources of terror – that it is not a coincidence that they appear to be from collapsed states, arising out of interventions in internal matters of targeted regimes.

There is a link also with the emerging current refuge crisis in Europe.

Q: The session you participated in as a panellist at this First World Conference on Tourism for Development was on tourism and peace. How did tourism manage to secure peace for Zimbabwe?
A: The last bullet fired by Zimbabwe in a war situation was in 1979. In Rhodesia, there was no substantial tourism to talk about because of the war and conditions that prevailed.

Unfortunately, following the inception of our land and agrarian reform, the response of a section of the international community created near similar conditions to those that prevailed pre-1980 for tourism – similar to war conditions.

The response in itself by the section of the international community was a failure of diplomacy.

When state diplomacy fails, even without guns being fired at times it can invent conditions equivalent to those of a war zone. And usually traditional diplomacy fails because of ego.

It fails because of reciprocity, because traditional diplomacy sometimes invokes an eye for an eye. But an eye for an eye leaves the world blind. Traditional diplomacy is also sometimes characterised by retaliation. It fails because it is characterised by those three elements.

We must never allow a situation where after traditional diplomacy fails it precipitates war before we invoke the inherent diplomatic characteristics of tourism. Tourism must come to the rescue and not itself to be a victim of collateral damage arising out of the failure of state diplomacy.

Tourism has become a public diplomacy tool and that type of diplomacy actually works. In tourism, we should patent soft power, the ability to embrace the diversity that comes from tourism. Tourism is public diplomacy which is characterised by wealth creation.

When people arrive in destinations, they are agents of goodwill. Usually they bring an olive branch, so today’s 1,2 billion global arrivals can easily be turned into peace ambassadors of this world. The expenditure that they generate in destinations creates tourism economies.

Q: Let’s look at the tourism sector in Zimbabwe, it nearly collapsed due to confrontation between the country and Western countries over land reform policies.
A: Yes, it is public knowledge that the decade leading up to 2009, Zimbabwe virtually ex-communicated itself from the UNWTO due to non-payment of membership subscription as a result of economic meltdown arising after the fallout with the international community over its agrarian reform.

Inflation last recorded in December 2008 was in excess of 240 million percent. The Zimbabwe dollar was in quadrillions to the US dollar and the international media onslaught had virtually collapsed the Zimbabwe brand.

In February 2009, I was part of the unity government that was prescribed to the country by the region. I was immediately drafted into the international re-engagement team and deployed to the debate on state diplomacy.

I immediately recognised the people-to-people diplomatic potential of the tourism sector and how it would underwrite inter-state diplomacy going forward.

Q: How did you apply this soft power diplomacy of tourism in Zimbabwe?
A: In the very early stage of my deployment, I realised that tourism was a force for good and we leveraged on it to transform a $2,94 million economy in 2009 to just over a billion in 2015.

Because I inherited (as Minister of Tourism and Hospitality Industry) so much adversity arising out of sanctions, disengagement and isolation of a destination, I turned this negative stock that I inherited into an opportunity.

The first thing is that I looked at the flip side of the negative publicity and concluded that there was nobody in the world who did not know Zimbabwe because it was in the press daily for one reason or another.

CNN, BBC, Sky News and all the major print media abroad covered the country for one reason or another almost on a daily basis. I said: “How do I proceed with this negative stock?”

The first thing is, I said notwithstanding the negativity, there was a starting point and that starting point was that no person in the world could claim that they didn’t know Zimbabwe and where it was.

The next thing was to rebrand, which meant basically turning that negative stereotype into an opportunity. How did I proceed with it? Through re-engagement!


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