Update (January 17, 09h00): Sources report that the internet is once again active, however social media access is still erratic.

Just before boarding a hired B787 Dreamliner to embark on a two-week working visit to five countries, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mgnangagwa shocked his country by announcing a 150% hike in fuel prices, effective midnight January 13, catapulting the country into protest action.

A swift sequel to this announcement on January 14 spurred the country to outrage, when government announced a shutdown of social media platforms, initially WhatsApp and Facebook, followed hours later by Twitter. The current situation, however, is a complete Internet connectivity blackout.

Reports are describing this connectivity shutdown as the government’s efforts to curb anti-government protests and incitement through social media, to down tools in support of the protests – which, while starting off peacefully, have turned violent in parts of the country.

The social media ban has reportedly been imposed on users by Econet (Zimbabwe’s largest mobile operator), state-owned TelOne, and Internet service provider (ISP), ZOL, through government mandate, leaving users – both residents and tourists visiting the country – without connectivity.

This means no destination research, no online bookings or payments, no email enquiries, no connecting with family members overseas while touring, and no social media sharing of tourists’ sights and travels through the country.

Gavin Rennie, Director of Off2Africa says: “This shutdown is effectively shutting off communication channels with the world. It’s really bad for [tourism] business as we can’t communicate with agents abroad; advise potential customers on destinations, accommodation, tours and packages; or quote on and confirm bookings,” all of which generally take place via email or online.

With tourism players unable to receive electronic communications, the risk of potential customers thinking that they are “not responding due to lack of interest” will severely affect business, as travellers will simply go elsewhere. Bad news for tourism businesses, and very bad news for the Zimbabwean economy.

Rennie recommends that tourism product and service providers alert their customers via SMS or phone call about the lack of connectivity. “We’ve got a temporary Internet shutdown, so please be patient with us and we will reply to queries as soon as possible,” he suggests.

Net effect

NetBlocks Group, a civil society group that works within the digital rights, cyber-security and Internet governance field, has estimated that a three-day shutdown would cost Zimbabwe US$17 227 262 – a further blow to the beleaguered economy.

On the ground

While unrest has struck the high-density areas of the major cities Harare and Bulawayo, tourism players on the ground say that it is peaceful across the broader Zimbabwe, especially in tourism hotspots. “It’s peaceful in most parts, from what we’ve observed. Shops and businesses have closed for security reasons; and roads are exceptionally quiet,” says Rennie.

Locals also report that airports seem unaffected, with flights taking off and landing as usual. On Monday, January 14, Fastjet Zimbabwe had advised that, for the day, flights to and from Harare would be cancelled due to the unrest affecting travel on the streets of Harare, and in particular to and from Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport.

However, the following day (January 15) all flights connecting Harare, Johannesburg and Bulawayo were once again operating as scheduled. “The safety of our customers and staff remain a top priority, and we will continue to carefully monitor any potential disruption as a result of any unrest that may occur in the Harare area,” said the carrier in a statement.

Travel advisories have been issued by the US Embassy in Zimbabwe, the Government of Canada, and the UK Government, and travellers are advised to stay abreast of any changes.

Borders are also open and fully functional. Gavin Kelly, acting CEO of the Road Freight Association in South Africa, confirmed this morning (Wednesday, January 16) that the border post at Beit Bridge was open and functioning. Kelly recommends that road travellers proceed with caution.

Making contact

Local tourism service providers recommend that should guests need more information, or require confirmation of bookings etc, they make contact with tourism service providers via telephone.

Africa Albida Tourism: +263 83 284 3211 up to 20 or +263 71 220 7381

Off2Africa: +263 771 363 211

Are you a Zimbabwe-based tour operator, attraction, or tourism product/service provider, and unable to communicate with your clients during the internet shutdown? Let Tourism Update know of any important alerts you wish to share, or any developments in the Zim situation, and we will keep our readers informed. Email editor@tourismupdate.co.za. (Information published at the discretion of Tourism Update).