The UN’s World Tourism organisation (UNWTO) has asked 88-year-old Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe to be a “leader for tourism”, according to the Guardian.Mugabe and his regional ally, Zambian president Michael Sata, held a ceremony at their shared border today where they signed an agreement from the organisation to become “International Tourism Ambassador”.
UNWTO secretary general Taleb Rifai attended the event by the famous Victoria Falls Bridge, and was quoted by Zimbabwean state newspaper the Herald as saying: “By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination.”
Of course, this is all a little odd given Mugabe’s fearsome reputation. The longtime ruler of Zimbabwe (three decades and counting) and his allies are under US and EU travel bans, and is frequently criticised for what some view as a racist policy towards white landowners and allegations of brutal clampdowns on opposition politicians. The CIA factbook from 2008 lists unemployment at 95%, and political turmoil is rife.
No one could deny that the country is beautiful (check out their official tourism page for examples), but that political situation is a big worry for tourists. Here’s a portion of what the US State Department says, for example:
The political, social, economic, and security situations in Zimbabwe are unpredictable and could deteriorate quickly without warning. Political harassment and intimidation by members of Zimbabwe’s security forces is pervasive and security forces may suppress dissent by whatever means deemed necessary.
Mugabe himself largely been indignant when criticised for these acts — in 2004 he famously compared himself to Hitler.
UNWTO are now on the backfoot, and have denied that the event amounts to any sort of formal title. Sandra Carvao, its co-ordinator of communications, told the Guardian:
“Correct would be to say 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.”
Regardless, its hard not to see the support as an endorsement. The UNWTO is planning on holding their annual conference in Zimbabwe next year, which will be only the second time the conference has been held in Africa.
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