By Elisha Woyo
THE COVID-19 pandemic has made global tourism suffer, even to zero tourism, since the virus knocked on our borders in March 2020.
We have seen various levels of lockdowns, however, and Zimbabwe is currently making progress in fully reopening its borders to revitalize tourism.
Given the travel restrictions imposed by several countries, several destinations have resorted to promoting domestic tourism without international and high-paying tourists. Zimbabwe is no exception as this was emphasized in its Tourism Recovery Strategy of August 2020.
While the focus seems to be on international travel as always, with Victoria Falls and Kazungula open to vaccinated travelers, what about the domestic travel market?
The promotion of domestic tourism is not a new phenomenon worldwide.
Kenya did so after the post-election violence in 2008, Malaysia during the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, and the US after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
As a distressed travel destination, Zimbabwe can also benefit from the promotion of tourism in the domestic market.
However, a recent study examining the sustainability of promoting domestic tourism as a post-COVID recovery strategy in crisis situations found that several challenges are hampering this.
One of the most important challenges is the affordability of tourism products and services for the local market.
Given the profound challenges in Zimbabwe, domestic tourism can help revitalize the tourism industry as managers and policymakers revisit pricing issues.
This is contrary to its competitiveness in both the international and the domestic market.
There is an opinion among suppliers of tourism products in Zimbabwe that the domestic market is unwilling to pay for tourism. Based on the research I’ve done, this is not a true narrative.
The domestic market craves travel but is hampered by costs.
Pricing for Zimbabwean tourism products is largely based on the philosophy of attracting few high paying tourists, which has appeared to be working for some time.
However, given the growing competition and challenges posed by COVID-19, this strategy requires rethinking, especially if we are to keep domestic tourism going.
In addition, the design of tourism products also requires adjustments to the domestic market, as most of the products are designed for the international traveler – much more innovation and localization of the product is required.
Without such, Zimbabwe’s domestic tourism will remain on the verge of tourism development.
It is important to highlight that the profitability of using domestic tourism as an option for recreation in Zimbabwe depends on how attractive and affordable the tourism products are.
Price cuts and other incentives to stimulate the domestic market are essential for the recovery from COVID-19.
This can easily be achieved by developing a pricing framework that the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Industry should take care of.
Dealing with it is also important beyond the recreation of tourism.
It helps improve destination loyalty and extend the length of stay for tourists, which averaged two nights before COVID-19.
If this is not addressed, the destination will already be in distress, losing more revenue and market share, leading to more problems like unemployment that tourism should create.
With tourism products largely developed and due to be sold to international travelers, destination managers in Zimbabwe need to push for more inclusive tourism.
Domestic tourists are currently excluded from the tourism value chain due to several factors, including exorbitant prices, product design and offer packages, which of course favor the international tourist.
Even the marketing element that the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) is pushing for is supposed to influence more cross-border travelers. While ZTA promotes domestic tourism, designing bespoke packages for the domestic market could be the starting point.
Competitive prices must be consciously pursued and this is critical to building financial inclusion.
Tourism is generally a highly income-related industry and circumstances in Zimbabwe show that the domestic market is highly income-related.
The government has played a crucial role in removing taxes on suppliers in order to raise capital, and the same mindset can be applied to those who charge less for domestic tourists.
Without addressing these and many other challenges, promoting domestic tourism could only consist of academic and theoretical narratives that Zimbabwe does not need.
Domestic tourism is recovering faster than international tourism.
To achieve this, access to domestic attractions needs to be improved, and this requires strengthening internal air connections, the prices of which should be correct.
Promoting domestic tourism requires government and other supply-side actors in the tourism industry to address supply-side challenges.
Hence, it is time to rethink tourism, market, product and design as we do business in the new normal world.