A LITTLE over 121,000 Americans visited Zimbabwe for business and leisure last year, 4% more than the pre-crisis peak registered in 1999.
With tourist arrivals up 15% in the first quarter of this year, Zimbabwe expects a sustained rebound for its hospitality industry, with hopes that American traffic weighs in with more than the 5% of the 2.4 million visitors recorded in 2017.
But American visitors have to reckon with a renewed travel advisory from their government, which early this month repeated its call for citizens to ‘exercise increased caution’ when visiting Zimbabwe, citing crime and potential civil unrest associated with the July 30 election.
This was not a new assessment as the country had, according to a 2018 crime and safety report issued on May 11, 2018, been categorised under a level two travel advisory.
US travel advisories fall into four categories – the first being one calling for normal precautions, the second urging increased caution, the third where citizens are encouraged to reconsider travel while the fourth warns ominously: ‘do not travel.’
Unsurprisingly, the latest United States travel advisory on Zimbabwe divided opinion in the deeply polarised country.
The July 2 warning came days after President Emmerson Mnangagwa, his two deputies and other senior government officials survived a bombing incident which killed two security officials at the end of a political rally in Bulawayo.
Reaction to the advisory has ranged from righteous indignation – “America should fix its gun crime before coming at us” – to gleeful acceptance of – ‘yet more evidence that Zimbabwe is broken’.
In a scathing editorial, the privately-owned NewsDay said the travel advisory was an indictment on President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration. The daily drew the ire of presidential spokesperson, George Charamba, who described NewsDay’s opportunistic deduction as “illogical and unfair.”
The frustration is understandable.
Apart from dimming the sunny outlook Mnangagwa’s government is trying to project abroad after ousting Robert Mugabe last November, the American travel warning also puts a damper on Zimbabwe’s recovering tourism industry.
Last year, American visitors to Zimbabwe rose by 31% on the 2016 figure, according to Zimbabwe Tourism Authority data.
However, Zimbabwe is by no means an exceptional case. The US department of state’s database shows 48 countries and territories placed under the level two travel advisory.
These include US’ European allies recently targeted by terror groups, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark and Spain.
Tourist havens, the Maldives, the Bahamas and Azerbaijan also fall under level two, as do Kenya, South Africa, China, Egypt, Mexico, Brazil and India. The Antarctica also makes the list, but on account of extreme and unpredictable weather.
But how unsafe is Zimbabwe?
Apart from political tensions associated with the July 30 vote and the potential of violent clashes in the event of yet another disputed election, the Department of State has flagged “violent crime, such as assault, carjacking, and home invasion.”
In 2017, Zimbabwe recorded 86,642 violent crimes, 78% of which were common assault cases. The country registered 1,067 murders, 1,246 cases of culpable homicide, 7,394 rapes, 244 cases of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and 1,754 incidents of indecent assault. There were 429 cases of armed robbery and 930 arsons.
By comparison, three major US states recorded more violent crimes than Zimbabwe, in nominal terms, according to this data. These are California (166,883), Florida (93,626) and Texas (113,227).
However, Zimbabwe’s 2017 murder rate of 7.86 per 100,000 is higher than the US’ average national homicide rate, which was 5.28 per 100,000 last year.
Only Maryland, Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Missouri and Louisiana have worse murder rates than Zimbabwe.