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Despite its natural attractions, the country has seen visitor numbers decline dramatically in recent years. Now that relative political stability has returned, should tourists do likewise? Lisa Grainger reports…

Five years ago, most tour operators would have advised against a holiday in Zimbabwe; and many Zimbabweans would have done the same. Shops were empty, and fuel was in such short supply that petrol queues snaked around the streets. Politically orchestrated violence was endemic; President Mugabe’s gangs were expropriating land from commercial farmers. Wildlife was being killed for food and tress cut down for fuel.

Now, however, the sharp decline in tourist numbers – down to 200,000 in 2007 from almost 600,000 before the millennium – has been arrested. ‘There is no doubt that Zimbabwe is the new hot African destination,’ says Chris McIntyre of Expert Africa, whose brochure devotes 16 pages to the county. By early February, 20 holidays have been booked. ‘Before, we were lucky if we got two a year,’ says McIntyre.

Between 2008 and 2009, according to Zimbabwe’s Minister of Tourism, Walter Mzembi, tourism revenue doubled. This year he predicts growth of seven per cent, a rate which the World Tourism Organisation reckons will give Zimbabwe the third fastest-growing tourist economy in 2011-2015.

It is not just hardened adventures (‘Antipodean backpackers who don’t give a s*** about politics,’ as one tour operator characterised them) who are returning to the country. Statistics from the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority show that visitors are coming mainly from Europe, the USA and Asia.

Stability has improved, both politically and financially. Since a coalition government was formed in February 2009, bringing in opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister, travel warnings have been lifted by the UK, USA, Japan and Germany. The country now uses the US dollar rather than Zimbabwe’s own (of which, when inflation was at its height, you could get 308 trillion for US$1); fuel is plentiful and shops are stocked with everything from basic groceries to Champagne. In general, roads are reasonably maintained. Credit cards are accepted, and there are ATMs. A number of upmarket camps have opened, and wildlife is being improved thanks to the increase in visits to the reserves.

Poaching and deforestation are still a problem, particularly in areas such as the Zambezi National Park and the Save Valley conservancy, where neighbouring former safari concessions are now held by Mugabe associates. ‘But in all the main safari spots – Hwange, Matusadona and Mana Pools – game conditions are as good as they were a decade ago,’ says John Berry of the Zambezi Safari & Travel Company.

For these game populations to be maintained, tourism is essential, says Beks Ndlovu of African Bush Camps. ‘They only way the county can generate income from conservation and local communities is to bring in more foreign visitors. This will help with anti-poaching patrols; it will pay for mending fences and maintaining roads; and it will give local people an incentive to protect the game.’

To ensure that money spent in Zimbabwe goes to the community rather than to the ruling elite, it is essential to choose an appropriate tour operator, says Justin Francis of Responsible Travel. ‘Provided you choose your operators with policies for responsible tourism, your holiday will really have a positive impact locally.’ John Berry agrees: ‘Tourists who travel with responsible companies don’t line Mugabe’s pockets, except with fuel duties and some taxes.’

And is it safe to go? ‘There hasn’t been a single tourist death from political violence,’ says Ndlovu, although ‘the number of self-drives has increased substantially. So yes, it’s safe – provided you take the precautions you would in any county in Africa.’

With an election looming, political stability is not guaranteed; it’s essential to keep an eye on developments. ‘But right now,’ say Chris McIntyre, ‘Zimbabwe is about half the price of anywhere else in Africa, the landscape is stunning and the parks are empty, and you’ll get a great reception from the local people.