The world needs a strong Africa: UNWTO candidate Walter Mzembi shares his views

Zimbabwe’s Tourism Minister, the Honorable Dr Walter Mzembi, has been circling the globe to lobby countries to vote for him as the next Secretary General for the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The Minister of Tourism and Hospitality Industry shared his views with Sunday Mail in Zimbabwe and eTurboNews:

Minister Mzembi stated:

I have come of age as arguably the dean of African tourism ministers. As a continent, we have realised that we should give one of our own an opportunity to contest for the United Nations World Tourism Organisation secretary-general’s post. Since the UNWTO’s inception in 1975, no African has held that post and we see that we are increasingly becoming the weak link in global performance.

In the year leading to 2015, tourism arrivals to Africa declined by -3 percent, down to 53 million from 56 million. We are only participating to the extent of 3 percent of global tourism performance at US$1,5 trillion. This sector employs one in 11 people in the world, equivalent to 288 million jobs that are generated by this low-hanging fruit.

Africa’s market share is just a mere 3 to 5 percent, so we are the weak link and I think the globe needs a strong Africa that will contribute to the growth, not the decline of the sector. Our performance shouldn’t weigh down global performance.

It is only an African in that position who can reverse the trend because the world is pretty much at a loss on how to deal with Africa. Ahead of us is 2017 — the United Nations International Year for Sustainable Tourism for Development — and we don’t want to get there with an Africa that is found wanting, a weak link in the chain.

We want to get there with an Africa with clarity on positive growth projections and is an equal player.

This started last year when I impressed on Africa Union Commission Chair Dr Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma and her team that to get to the “Africa we want”, we had to integrate the missing link in Agenda 2063 — travel and tourism — as we capture it under the UNWTO Commission for Africa that I chair.

How would we get to 2063 — 50 years from now — without a continental tourism policy?

Travel is the revolution of our contemporary times.
There were 25 million tourists 65 years ago, today we have 1, 2 billion.

This kind of exponential growth has no comparison to any other economic sector.

It would be a tragedy if Africa continues missing in action in this sector that precedes trade and investment.

There is a tradition in UN systems — if you follow the current race for the replacement of Ban ki-Moon — that favours some kind of equity and regional rotation in the deployment of key positions.

If this is anything to go by, it is in the UNWTO. It’s time for Africa, and I have been endorsed to carry the cross.

I must state here at the outset, though, that I am very grateful to the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, Cde Robert Mugabe, for allowing this special dispensation for me to run for office with the added advantage of incumbency in the capacity of Minister of Tourism.

It is a joy to work with him to the extent that he comprehends the significance of deployment to international systems as it has huge benefits for the country and continent.

UNWTO benefits to Africa

My brief is marketing and promoting Zimbabwe domestically and internationally. The campaign is an add-on to what I am already doing.

I haven’t altered my travel diary to answer this campaign.

My routine travel diary is natural to the exposure that anyone seeking office would have to be subjected to.

So, I am simply leveraging on the leadership demands of my mandate as Minister and Chair of the UNWTO Commission for Africa to pitch my candidature.

I have a dual theme, “It’s Time for Africa” and “Africa’s man for the World”.

The first aspect speaks to our plea for fairness and equity, whilst the second deals with my own craft competence for the post.

The campaign is arguably one of the most followed issues in global tourism today.

The Walter Mzembi brand is synonymous with Zimbabwe and vice versa (so there are) intangible benefits that come with brand recognition arising from elective processes.

I will use two analogies: Barack Obama and his Kenyan descendants and how every Kenyan proudly associates with this brand name, the President of the United States.

There is also Koffi Annan during his time as UN Secretary General and how every Ghanaian claimed relations of one shade or another with him.

In both instances, the deployments raised the brand profile and equity of Kenya, Ghana and Africa.

So shall it be with me, Zimbabwe and Africa in the UN system.

Many people take stock of tangible benefits, placing the self at the centre to say, “How much did I make out of this event?”

We count intangible benefits, the image and reputation of the country to the extent that the brand has never been the same after (the 20th Session of the UNWTO General Assembly co-hosted by Zimbabwe and Zambia).

Prior to this, Zimbabwe — gliding through sanctions slapped by the European Union until November 2014 when revocation of Article 96 was enacted, combined with Zidera by the US — was not the world’s most favoured host of the UNWTO General Assembly.

You don’t want to imagine the disdain I met when I first proposed Zimbabwe as a host!

It reminded me of John 1: 46, “And Nathaniel said to him, ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’”

Phillip said to him, “Come and see.”

It was unimaginable that the Messiah could come from Nazareth.

The world came to Victoria Falls in 2013 and saw for itself, and its sentiment is best captured by the remarks of the incumbent Secretary General, Dr Talib Rifai.

Dr Rifai had this to say, “This has been the best attended General Assembly in the history of General Assemblies.”

After this, we have never looked back.

September 2014 saw Zimbabwe being awarded the World Best Destination Status by the Bucharest-based European Council on Tourism and Trade.

The New York Times included us in its 2015 Annual “52 Global Must Visit Destinations” Report, with the citation, “Once avoided, now a must see”.

Those who were looking for tangible benefits and probably did some invoicing of some of the activities of the event have since forgotten about it and yet intangibly, the world still remembers it.

The country’s tourism has grown in leaps and bounds to the extent where it is acknowledged not just as an economic pillar, but one that now leads in projected sectoral growth at 4,1 percent for the year 2015-2016, according to the Minister of Finance’s 2015 National Budget statement.

Turning adversity into opportunity

Zimbabwe had a negative brand name recognition when I assumed office in 2009.

I immediately realised that there was not a single person who did not know Zimbabwe out there.

So, I sought, in the first instance, to place a new Zimbabwe in the mindset of the international community through re-engagement and getting the country readmitted into the canons of global tourism.

I realised at that stage that it was possible to leverage tourism as a peace sector and a tool for citizen or public diplomacy.

I also learnt that in the majority of cases, ordinary citizens have absolutely no clue on fallouts between State administrations.

Therefore, tourism would be the bridge for people-to-people diplomacy that nation States should never collapse.

On the back of this philosophy, all my engagement with international source markets had a political message and plea to State administrations on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe and in the process, negotiating away negative travel advisories.

By July 2009 — five months after my deployment — the world had bought this message and granted Zimbabwe a clean bill of travel health.

Immediately after that, I took a rebranded Zimbabwe into UNWTO leadership, starting with our election to the executive council in September 2009 in Astana, Kazakhstan.

We remained in there until 2013 when I changed course for the country and lobbied for the Commission for Africa Chairmanship that we hold up to this very day.

So, we have been in global agenda-setting for tourism since.

The Africa Travel Association — recently acquired by the Washington-based Corporate Council for Africa in its new structure — has proposed a Council of Ministers which they have asked me to chair. This would be a record fourth time that I am president of the association.

In summary, I have conquered the Nazareth factor on behalf of my country, and now is the time to do it for Africa!