FUNGAI Mutseyekwa, the general manager of St Lucia Park, a training and conference centre, works around a very serene environment: lush green gardens abo
ut magnificent brick under thatch buildings that provide a scenic view from the office.
And the air is refreshing.
St Lucia Park, sitting at the heart of Marlborough just off Harare Drive, is outside the hussle and bustle of Harare’s fast and noisy central business district.
An environment for clear thinking, one would imagine, and may be the ideal place for the new Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe (Haz) president to ponder clearly over how to tackle problems troubling a once-promising hospitality sector now haunted by negative perceptions and a six-year economic crisis.
Mutseyekwa, who served as the deputy of two previous Haz presidents before his election as president at a recent annual general meeting (AGM), is very clear about what needs to be done to turn around the ailing tourism sector.
“We need to be honest; we have a situation that needs to be resolved (and) tinkering on the periphery of the problem will not help,” says Mutseyekwa.
He maintains: “We cannot resolve the problem (affecting the tourism industry) by doing what we’ve always done.”
In other words, government should adopt policy measures that encourage investment in the sector and attract visitors from key source markets who have shunned the country because of concerns like fuel shortages and a breakdown of the rule of law in the country precipitated by agrarian reforms and electoral disputes that have left a trail of deaths behind them.
He has a very simple prescription: the government should know what it is supposed to do, and so should Haz and other stakeholders “so there’s accountability,” he says.
At its AGM, Haz appointed Vice-President Joice Mujuru patron of the tourism sector.
Mutseyekwa says this has opened doors to the Presidium and tourism players can now easily approach Mujuru on issues they feel should be urgently dealt with to improve the country’s image.
Already, Mutseyekwa says, Haz has pushed for a complete transformation of the country’s borders to improve services and eliminate unnecessary delays that had become a major frustration to tourists visiting the country.
Mujuru has already taken a leading role on pushing for the transformations, Mutseyekwa says, and there is a lot more the industry believes it could gain through her role as the sector’s patron.
“I’m encouraged by her attitude,” Mutseyekwa says, shrugging off a pessimistic question from this reporter. “She’s passionate about wanting to see things turn around,” he says, trying to sway opinion.
But his opinion of the tourism industry is, nonetheless, critical.
“The industry is crawling because of negative perceptions,” says Mutseyekwa, “Volumes are down and the hyperinflationary environment has made our human resources vulnerable and they expect solutions from employers. Their motivation has been affected and that impacts on service levels.”
“We need various stakeholders to work together to get the tourism sector back on a growth path,” he says, sounding a little disappointed by previous efforts by both government and tourism sector players which looked disjointed.
Industry players, Mutseyekwa says, had undertaken their own efforts apart from government’s own initiatives to revive the tourism sector.
This did not work, Mutseyekwa says, and at times, industry had overstepped its own mandate, encroaching into what government perceived to be its territory.
“We have been a little controversial in trying to find due solutions to the crisis,” says Mutseyekwa.
“I’m passionate about branding Zimbabwe but it’s the mandate of the Zimbabwe Tourism Association (ZTA). We’ll support them in their efforts. We have to work together, we have to sing from the same hymn book,” says Mutseyekwa, talking about combined efforts between stakeholders to tackle problems besetting the sector.
The ZTA is a quasi-government institution whose role is to promote Zimbabwe internationally as a tourism destination.
Last year, Zimbabwe suffered a 16% decline in tourist arrivals against those recorded the previous year.
Over the six-year economic crisis, the country has experienced a decline in tourist arrivals of well over 50%.
But Mutseyekwa is not about to throw in the towel.
“I have a vision, and it needs commitment. I predict that in the next three years, we’ll see a lot of transformation,” says Mutseyekwa.
Mutseyekwa graduated from the School of Hospitality and Tourism at the Bulawayo Polytechnical College in 1994, before joining the Rainbow Tourism Group (RTG), now led by the affable CEO Chipo Mtasa, whom he reckons will be part of a renaissance of the tourism sector together with the ZimSun Leisure group CEO, the astute Shingi Mutasa.
Mutseyekwa started as an assistant food and beverages manager at RTG’s Rainbow Hotel in Victoria Falls before becoming general manager of RTG’s various hotels around the country.
He moved to St Lucia Park in 2001.
“I believe I am called to hospitality; it’s what I enjoy,” says Mutseyekwa, who had a brief work experience at a UK hotel.
During his term as Haz president, he intends to grow the organisation’s membership and make Haz a self-sustaining organisation.
Mutseyekwa says the tourism industry has lost significant skills to the brain drain experienced in the country because of the economic crisis and deaths of professionals from HIV/Aids.
Therefore, he would want to push for an increase in the output of relevant skills from colleges.
“The deficiency manifests itself through service levels,” says Mutseyekwa, somberly.
Mutseyekwa says consultations are currently underway to address the issues of negative perception.
He says the groundwork had been laid through the appointment of Mujuru as tourism sector patron.
The industry would embark on various campaigns to address issues raised by countries that have issued travel warnings on Zimbabwe.