Controversial Travel – What To Say About Zimbabwe?

When I first learned that I would be visiting Zimbabwe, I was excited. Then I began to worry. I didn’t worry just about my physical safety, but for my moral well-being. Not too long ago I chided people who travel to Uganda, propping up a regime that wants to institute the death penalty for all gay people. I was shocked people would support the government financially while such a repugnant policy was still being considered. But then, on a hot day in August I found myself at the Zimbabwean border, paying the $35 fee for an entrance visa and trekking into the country in a comfortable van. What was I doing?

So what’s the big deal? Well, like most things in life, it’s complicated. In 1980 Zimbabwe was recognized by the international community as an independent nation and Robert Mugabe took power as Prime Minister (he later became President in 1987). Since then Mugabe has been the only ruler and has been accused of many human rights abuses including violent intimidation and worse to those who oppose his regime. In 2000 he pursued a land redistribution program that drove a sizable portion of the white population out of the country. The destruction of the farms led to shortages and an economic spiral, famously epitomized by their $10 Trillion notes. In addition to rape, murder, kidnapping and intimidation, the ruling party has also recruited child soldiers who roam towns through what has been described as state sponsored terror. Fun place.

Which brings us to today and my luxury adventure in Zimbabwe. After the trip I wondered what, if anything, I should say about the country and my experiences there, which were all terrific. Here’s my dilemma and the two counteracting arguments in this debate. As I debated in my Uganda post, many believe that any visit to Zimbabwe is a tacit approval of the government’s policies and that by supporting the tourism industry, a message is sent that things aren’t so bad. If any change is to be realized, all tourism must stop and the need for change will come from within. That’s one argument. The other is that by not visiting, you aren’t hurting the government, you’re only hurting the people working in the country. The people who toil for tour companies and hotels, the ones who depend on their wages to live. One should be mindful of the policies of the country, but not necessarily allow them to dictate one’s behavior. That’s the second argument.

Yeah, see I can relate to both sides in this debate. Ultimately I decided to go to Zimbabwe because I knew I would be in areas that are as safe as one could hope. The resort is just a few miles from Victoria Falls, a heavily touristed area near the border. I also really wanted to see Zimbabwe first hand. Call it a sort of morbid curiosity, but I wanted to witness this place I’d been reading about for so long; to stare the boogeyman in the face so to speak.

Victoria Falls Zimbabwe

In retrospect I’m glad I went. I’m glad I got to see some amazing research on black rhino conservation and of course to explore the Victoria Falls area. But I’m torn again in how to share this information or whether or not I should share it at all. I’m lucky, I have a voice and a bully pulpit from which to share with you all my travel experiences in order to help you make the best travel decisions possible. But I don’t want my thoughts to be misinterpreted as support of the Zimbabwean government and I don’t want people to think that I don’t care about human rights abuses. Of course I do. So I’m a bit stuck.

This is where you come in. What would you like to hear about? Do you want to know what it’s like to travel in Zimbabwe, to stand two feet from a massive black rhino and to learn about the extraordinary measures through which scientists hope to save them? Or would you rather I gloss over this particular stop on my trip to Africa, so as not to appear supportive of a corrupt regime?

I would really like to hear your opinions on this and any country where a similar dilemma may occur.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

31 thoughts on “Controversial Travel – What To Say About Zimbabwe?”

  1. Good post, Matt. I think the weight of responsibility, once you’ve decided to visit a place like Zimbabwe, now lies on your shoulders as a writer with an audience. Use your platform to share the truth as you encountered it on the ground, to the best of your ability. Educate, elevate the conversation, and bring the issues to light. I think being honest about the corrupt regime as you also share about the brighter sides of your experiences will serve your world of readers well. Thanks for being willing to wrestle with the tensions!

  2. A lot of our friends are Zimbos whose families were pushed off their farms. Without exception they sing Zim’s praises as being one of the most beautiful places on earth. We’re actually planning on going with a couple of them to Kariba in the next year.

    I guess ethically speaking, if they’re the ones who were adversely affected by the government and they’re willing to vacation there it doesn’t make much sense for me to tell them I’d rather not join them because I’m making some sort of ethical stand. They did, however, assure me that it’s quite possible to spend a significant amount of time there without giving the government much money beyond the visa fee.

    1. I can confirm that Zim is in fact one of the most beautiful people on earth. And despite paying an appalling $75 for being Canadian to enter the country, very little of my remaining money went to anything that the government would have received.

      It doesnt make sense to me to punish locals that could highly benefit from tourism simply because one doesnt agree (and rightfully so) with the decisions and actions of the government.

  3. I feel that you should present your travels in an unbiased manner. Present as much fact as possible, and reveal your concerns as you’ve stated. It’s up to the individual traveler to decide if they should visit.

  4. This caught my attention as I myself am headed to Zimbabwe next month. Clearly, I would agree with the second argument – that by not visiting, you are hurting the people trying to make a living in that country. The same can be said of many countries all over the world – there is good and bad, corruption and abuses on some level in just about every government. And sometimes, it takes actually visiting a country to see evidence of it with one’s own eyes – then it becomes even more important to continue writing and sharing the experience as it really is. I just did so in my latest post, when my eyes were opened beyond the beauty of wildlife in another African country, Kenya. I share the good, but I also share the reality.
    Back to your question. We all know about a corrupt regime in Zimbabwe. But I had no idea about the extraordinary measures through which scientists hope to save the black rhino in Zimbabwe. That’s what I want to read. Thanks, Matt.

  5. Matt, I’d like to know more.
    How much of a tourist industry has Zimbabwe got at this present time? How much does tourism contribute to Zimbabwe’s GDP? Do you feel that tourist dollars are the answer to supporting the population of Zimbabwe? Did the people you spoke to, say that tourism was the answer to the country’s problems? Where did your $35 visa fee go to?
    In short I’d like to see a deeper discussion as you never answered your own question as to why you ended up going to the country. If you had visited, then seen at first hand, elephant conservation in Uganda, would you have written about that and glossed over other aspects of that country and its regime?

    1. Sure I can answer some of those questions and in the post I DID say why I ended up going. Not going to gloss over everything, that isn’t what I meant to please don’t misunderstand. It’s a question of covering ti 100% or not at all.

      1. Matt, apologies, you did give some reasons for visiting Zimbabwe, though I still can’t understand how being safe and ‘morbid curiosity’ can overcome the reasoning you elucidated in your earlier post regarding Uganda.
        From what I have read of your previous posts, you have strong voice on ethical matters. You normally look beyond the pictures the relevant tourist organisations and companies tend to want to promulgate.
        There are lots of good people and good things happening in every country of the world. It is good to be reminded that the general populations of ‘pariah’ countries are often peaceful, loving people. Also, that their governments do not speak for the population as a whole.
        The decision to visit these countries is of course down to the individual. Anyone with an ethical stance on the matter has to do a lot of research to see who will benefit most from their visit. Where the money ends up is one aspect to be researched, but also the fact that positive travel reports from a country can easily be used for propaganda purposes.
        When a country’s tourist board sponsors lots of Press Trips it is likely to be because the government needs extra tourist dollars. But how many people research to see if there is a deeper reason for their generosity, such as political unrest or a poor human rights record? In this case positive reports from Press Trips would be priceless.

  6. I spent 3 weeks in Zim back in June and absolutely loved my time (despite paying a shocking $75 entrance fee compared to your $35 – I’m Canadian… Mugabe doesn’t like our gov’t, and punishes us Canadian passport holders at his borders).

    I think Zim is home to some of the most kindhearted and friendly people that I have encountered in my travels. I think it’s wrong of people to dismiss a country or consider not visiting a country solely because of the shady actions of it’s government – 9.9 times out of 10, as a tourist, you wont even encounter anything that would indicate such bad things are going on.

    I learned about some of the terrible things Mugabe has done while I was there and was speaking with locals and I by no means support him or what he stands for – in fact I think the world would be a better place without people like him – but I was so glad that I was able to experience Zimbabwe and meet the local people, and I intend on returning next year. I am a firm believer in always supporting locals and I guess feeding into your second argument – I would encourage people to go to get to know the wonderful people. Some are scared to talk negatively about their leader, but others will say it how it is. It’s very interesting and the country has such a sad history. I think people need to become educated about issues going on in places that they are visiting.

    At not one point during my stay in Zim did I ever feel unsafe, at risk or uncomfortable. There were a few people who had approached me for money on the streets in Vic Falls but when I said no they wished me well and went on with their day. The scare tactics used by the gov’t amongst their own people are not generally used on tourists.

    I know I’m rambling now… but I think the main thing is to get educated and not write a country off because of how it’s portrayed in the media. I loved Zim.

  7. I would definitely like to read more, Matt. There definitely is a moral dilemma when it comes to destinations like this, but I feel like you’re in a very unique position to use your experience and your blog to educate people about the reality.

    If I were in this situation myself, I would go back to focusing on the basics of sustainable travel – if I could visit the country in a way where I felt like my money was actually going to the PEOPLE, and not to the corrupt government, then I probably would consider going, too.

  8. You raise an important question, Matt. Maybe a middle ground is to visit, describe the good things you saw, but also describe the injustices and what you observed of them. You can also highlight for your readers what NGOs are fighting to help improve the situation, and where people can donate (and donate yourself). For example, support International Campaign for Tibet if you visit Tibet.

    In this way you have increased awareness of the government’s oppression and maybe even been a tiny part of the solution. This is especially true for a traveler with a blog like you.

  9. I think you are in a unique position to educate people about both the good and bad. Personally I am in the second camp when it comes to visiting questionable countries as I think it is important to support the local communities as much as possible. I look forward to hearing more.

  10. I’m watching this with interest because I had some of the same concerns as you. By choice, I haven’t visited Zim since the mid-1990s, despite it being my northern neighbour. This was a decision taken specifically not to ‘support’ the political regime with my tourism dollars. However, friends took us to Vic Falls and Hwange National Park earlier this year to celebrate a Big Birthday. I also struggled with whether or not to go, and then whether or not to talk about it in my blog.
    I took the easy way out – to talk about the place and activities and people, but avoid the politics. Here in Southern Africa we all know the politics only too well, but we forget to honour the lovely people who still live there and – amazingly – manage to find something to smile about. Like Melissa, I’d like to pay tribute to them, their fortitude and their friendliness.
    And I wait with interest to see what you decide decide to do, Matt.

    1. Thanks Roxanne! I too have loved these responses and will be sharing as much as I can about my visit to Zim. But it is important to remember the politics of the country while writing. Still, that doesn’t affect the beauty of Victoria Falls or the majesty of the wildlife.

  11. One solution to this problem that a lot of people have embraced is to head across the border to Zambia. Zambia offers almost all (if not more) of the same activities – and since you’ve already seen the view from the Zim side, there is not much of an advantage to staying in Zimbabwe. Zambia is a peaceful country and doesn’t have the political stigma that Zim does. But if you do go to Zambia – be sure to have a credit card (or Zambian kwacha) since American dollars are no longer accepted.

  12. It gets so tough when you start putting countries into moral piles. Who is ok to visit, who is not? I lived in Egypt for a few years and of course much of my money went to their government who I despised but my experience and the money I put in the hands of everyday people plus my perspective and life learning justified it.

  13. TwoOregonians nailed it: Truth. There’s power in truth, a power in sharing what you know about Zimbabwe. I’d like to hear what you learned when you were visiting and what else you’ve learned afterwards. At this point, you’ve already made the trip so I say you might as well share a nuanced viewpoint that could make a whole lot of us smarter and more informed.

    To not visit a country because of its government’s politics increasingly seems to me to be a practice in self-delusion. Every government in this world can be viewed as corrupt, wicked, or outright evil. It’s more a matter of the scale of the corruption, of who the victims of the corruption are, and whether the corruption is dealt through intent or by neglect.

    I keep going back to Aung San Suu Kyi’s statements on how to bring change about in countries like Burma, where the government is so clearly working against the interests of its country’s people.

    In her 2012 Nobel speech, she said: “To be forgotten. The French say that to part is to die a little. To be forgotten too is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity. When I met Burmese migrant workers and refugees during my recent visit to Thailand, many cried out: ‘Don’t forget us!’ They meant: ‘don’t forget our plight, don’t forget to do what you can to help us, don’t forget we also belong to your world.'”

    1. Matt, you’ve had me thinking since I first read this post about your conundrum. I went through a similar “should or shouldn’t” moment after visiting Cambodia.

      A recent new comment on that post prompted me to re-read what I wrote back then. Perhaps it’ll add to your thinking on Zimbabwe.

      Maybe in how I decided to share and post about Cambodia you’ll find a nugget of inspiration. Looking back, it feels a little rant-y, but it still gets found and read frequently, so it does something right.

  14. I spent about 3 months in Zimbabwe about three years ago. The media focuses too much on problems with government that rarely is a positive side shown. Commenting honestly doesn’t necessarily support the govt. but gives an alternative view. It is a beautiful country with a lot of tourism potential and not once did I feel unsafe.

  15. Having recently spent the worst 3 weeks holiday in zimbabwe I can only have pity on the zimbabwe people. From a tourist point of view zims has the most corrupt and thieving police force in the world.I did not feel at all comfortable with their persistent intimidation and threatening attitude to every south african I saw up their.We were fined $20 US at nearly every roadblock(and there are plenty on the main routes)The worst was when we were pulled over by 4 ZRP BABOONS in harare and fined $200 US (over R2200) for not stopping at a zebra crossing.We reported this at a harare police station and the response was very layed back as if all of these excuses for human beings were in it together.It is very clear that the election was stolen as stealing from people by zanu pf and the “goon” police force is mandatory.Food and most things are approx 3 times more expensive than SA so the so called private sector is in on it aswell.It is my intention to alert every forum magazine of this most pathetic country in africa.I heard the odd rumour etc about this police state but never imagined I would be treated like this as an african tourist.All I hope for is for every policeman that stole my money will be cursed for the rest of his life for ruining a hard earned holiday.

  16. @Mellisa- TheMellyboo project . . . i wanna thank u fo ur unbiased point . . . concerning th pretty high entrance fee, ts something tht sm locals r unhappy abt coz ts jst a way of th corrup regime t gain sm $$ . . .

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