Thu, June 03, 2010
Lifestyle > Travel

Football boosts Zimbabwe's appeal

2010-06-03 10:27:10 GMT2010-06-03 18:27:10 (Beijing Time)  China Daily

Zimbabwean tourists visit the Great Zimbabwe, the ancient site where Shona kings once held sway, in Masvingo, the capital of their Munhumutapa empire in April 2010. (AFP/Desmond Kwande)

Two years ago vervet monkeys were the main visitors crawling through Zimbabwe's royal ruins, Great Zimbabwe, but now tourists are returning in another sign of the nation's fledgling recovery.

Cars drawing trailers and motorbikes bearing foreign number plates queue up at the gates to Great Zimbabwe, the ancient site where Shona kings once held court.

Zimbabwe's unity government, created last year, has stabilized the nation after decades of autocratic rule by President Robert Mugabe led to political and economic turmoil which in turn hit tourism numbers.

Now they're coming back.

Hazel Gallagher, who like many of those wandering Great Zimbabwe's sweeping granite corridors is from neighboring South Africa, is among 30,000 visitors expected at the ruins this year.

"This time we have come with four other family friends," she says, having already visited twice before. "The place is just amazing. How they managed to build this place still amazes me."

While this year's visitor estimate is more than double last year's number, it's still some way off the 120,000 who passed through the site in 1999, says Godfrey Mahachi, Zimbabwe's museums boss.

"Judging by the number of arrivals so far, this year is bound to be a better year," Mahachi says. "We are also expecting large numbers of visitors during and after the World Cup", which kicks off June 11 in South Africa, he adds.

The ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 20 meters high walls swoop around a conical tower where Shona kings, ruled from the 12th to 16th centuries. Their kingdom held sway over a trading empire that controlled nearby gold mines, which were used in commerce with Arab traders, thus providing a link to countries as far away as India and China.

"This is the biggest ancient structure in southern Africa," notes Edward Chidawa, a tour guide at the site since 1995. "Although Zimbabwe has had its fair share of troubles, this is the place to be for tourists and anybody who wants to learn about the history of architecture."

Eight stone-carved birds, still of mysterious significance, were found at the site and are now a national emblem.

But the steady decline of tourist numbers between 1999 and last year meant maintenance suffered at Great Zimbabwe, which relies on entry fees to finance its small museum and preservation efforts.

"The resources we get through the payments for viewing the Great Zimbabwe are ploughed back into conservation efforts," Mahachi says.

"However, there is little you can do when you don't have a significant number of visitors," he adds, which has led to a number of restoration projects being shelved. They included a plan to use a computer system to monitor for movements in the stone bricks, which are held together without mortar and thus susceptible to shifts over time, Mahachi says.

As tourists return, and with Zimbabwe now using the US dollar as its main currency, museum officials hope to get conservation efforts back on track, he adds.

Hoteliers in the southeastern city of Masvingo are also hoping their own fortunes will revive, as the ruins are the area's only major attraction.

Fredrick Kasese, CEO of the Regency Hotel Group which owns three locations in the city, says bookings in 2008 were at 31 percent for the year. So far this year, bookings are at 41 percent, and he expects a boost during the World Cup this month.

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