The timing couldn’t be more awkward. The United Nations World Tourism Organization is holding its most important global gathering this year at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, from August 24 to 29, barely out of the shadow of a July 31 Zimbabwean national electiondeclared fraudulent by the defeated opposition and condemned as not credible by governments and rights groups around the world. The atmosphere continues to fester in the wake of the vote.
Zimbabwean officials are hoping for a boost in tourism for a nation in deep economic trouble created during more than three decades of authoritarian rule by President Robert Mugabe. Over the years, many thousands of Zimbabweans have fled to neighboring Botswana and South Africa. Recent visitors to Victoria Falls have reported beggars on the roads to tourist sites.
The biennial global tourism conference, jointly sponsored and staged this year by Zimbabwe and Zambia, is expected to draw an estimated 500 or more delegates from the organization’s 155-member countries, though there are growing doubts about how many governments may not attend in the wake of the election. Even before the vote, Canada expressed regrets that the meeting was being held Zimbabwe (with a few events in Zambia, next door). Media in Britain have reported that the British government may also not attend. There has been no public statement to date from the United States.
In Geneva, the advocacy group UN Watch welcomed reports that Britain and Canada will not be sending representatives. “Amid reports of election-rigging and ongoing human rights abuses, Zimbabwe is the last country that should be legitimized by a UN summit of any kind,” Hillel Neuer, UN Watch executive director, said in a statement. “The government of Robert Mugabe has brutalized human rights activists, crushed democracy dissidents, and turned the breadbasket of Africa into a basket-case. The notion that the UN should now spin this country as a lovely tourism destination is, frankly, sickening,” he said.
The World Tourism Organization general assembly has been planned for two years, and the Victoria Falls area, a natural wonder with one of the great colonial-era grand hotels, is still a draw. “There was no impact on the preparation of the event from the elections and arrangements continue as scheduled,” Sandra Carvão, communications chief for the World Tourism Organization, said in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, the Times of Zambia reported that the Zambian Minister of Tourism and Arts said she was “happy” that the just-ended general elections in Zimbabwe did not affect preparations for the event. The minister, Sylvia Masebo, said that “the peaceful elections in Zimbabwe will complement the successful hosting of the UNWTO general assembly.” She was speaking at an interfaith religious service called to pray for a successful meeting. It will be one in a series, the newspaper said.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.