I have a private meeting at the Zimbabwe Embassy in London, scheduled for 20 minutes, that lasts an hour, and yes, my host the Tourism Minister retains my undivided attention throughout. Over the years 20 years of running Atta, I have met with many African tourism ministers. Sadly, this is so often a cabinet position handed out as a grace and favour post as thanks from a newly elected President, believing that tourism is about holidays and everyone knows about holidays. Thus, ministers are often either very young or very old and have no experience of tourism whatsoever. But my host today certainly does not fall into that category – quite the opposite.
Hon Doctor Engineer Walter Mzembi (52), the Minister of Tourism & Hospitality for Zimbabwe, greets me wearing a snappy blue suit, pink tie and highly polished shoes. He is running for Secretary General of United Nations World Tourism Organisation to succeed the softly spoken Jordanian, Taleb Rifai, who retires later this year.
In its 43 years, UNWTO has never appointed an African leader. Now it could be our turn. Our continent needs the influence and prestige that this appointment at the UNWTO, one of the seventeen specialised agencies in the United Nations, can provide. There are currently seven candidates for the post from Armenia, Brazil, Colombia, Georgia, Republic of Korea, Seychelles and Zimbabwe. To date three secretary generals have come from Europe and one each from the American and Asian continents.
It is quite apparent, after just a few minutes, that Walter Mzembi “gets tourism” and understands the issues. He speaks passionately about the industry and the influence that this highly respected position can give to the tourism industry. He has been Zimbabwe’s tourism minister for eight years, currently the longest serving tourism minister in Africa, and Atta members in the region speak highly of him. He is certainly an excellent communicator and reels out a raft of facts and figures. Africa and Middle East share only 3-5% of global tourism. Where jobs are concerned, our continent is falling way behind sharing just 21 million tourism jobs out of a global 288 million, and so on.
Dr Mzembi certainly has an impressive track record. Despite Zimbabwe’s international isolation he managed to persuade the executive council that the UNWTO General Assembly should be hosted by Zimbabwe and Zambia in 2013, and it was a huge success. Despite all the political hurdles thrown at him, he has managed to retain the support of Zimbabwe’s tourism industry and remains throughout an excellent and respected ambassador for a country that has suffered so much trouble and strife.
During our meeting, he touches on many of the key issues we are facing – open skies and borders, the high taxation of the tourism sector and visa regulation. He understands how terrorism threatens many of these aims. But tourism, he says, can be used to promote peace, security and social harmony and, above all, the reduction of poverty in the region. The combination of UNWTO and the African Union working together for African tourism is a powerful prospect and Mzembi is the man to lead that initiative as well.
Now is the time for UNWTO to spread its wings and appoint a candidate from outside the current status quo in its Madrid-based HQ. This appointment would not only give the vast continent of Africa representation at the very top table, but the right man at the right time to spearhead a campaign to ensure that tourism is a pillar of all economies. Those of us promoting tourism to Africa will appreciate that an experienced African Minister heading up this influential global agency could give African tourism the boost it so badly needs. Forget the address, let’s back the candidate most suitable for the job and my vote goes to Doctor Engineer Walter Mzembi PhD.