Members of The Africa Travel Association (ATA) gathered in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, May 17-23, to attend educational seminars, network, and focus on recovery at their 37th Annual ATA World Congress. ATA’s historic choice of Zimbabwe as host country came after a 23-year break in the country’s ATA membership. ATA’s 37th Congress launched a return of international tourist events to Zimbabwe, once a premier African destination.
Zimbabwe demonstrated its appreciation and expert infrastructure with a well-organized event and an unprecedented number of attending government officials. Dignitaries from Zimbabwe and the USA, Tourism Ministers from six African nations, as well as experts from around the world joined ATA delegates for hard-hitting discussions that focused on the role of tourism in Africa, how to promote it and how to form partnerships that will facilitate travel into Africa and between its countries.
ATA Executive Director Edward Bergman opened the Congress by recognizing the attendance of the first female Vice President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, the Honorable T. Joice Muijuru; the (female) Governor of the Zimbabwe state of Matabeleland North Province, the Honorable Governor T Mathuthu; African Union Ambassador to the USA, Amina Ali; US Ambassador to the Republic of Zimbabwe, Charles A. Ray; US Ambassador to Zambia, Mark Storella; Ministers of Tourism (all cabinet-level individuals) from Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Republic of Ghana, Gambia, Senegal, Namibia, as well as Chief Executive, Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, Karikoga Kaseke, and many top executives from airlines, embassies, hotel chains, marketing firms, travel providers, online travel sites and media. This impressive list was so lengthy that most speakers at the Congress made do with the phrase, “Protocol Observed,” which saved an enormous amount of time.
In his opening remarks, Edward Bergman used the depth and width of attending dignitaries to emphasize ATA’s mission of promoting travel and tourism to Africa and to facilitate intra-Africa partnerships between governments, private sector companies, non-profits and associations to reach that goal. Headquartered in New York, ATA’s 37-year-old role has been “to serve as a bridge between the world and Africa.”
Focus on Tourism, not Politics
One might assume that this abundance of government officials (politicians) and upper-echelon executives might fill the Congress sessions with lofty platitude and enough hot air to float its delegates high over the nearby Victoria Falls. One would be wrong. Presentations dealt in reality; questions from delegates were relevant and answers were direct. Everyone agreed that many African nations faced enormous “public relations” challenges, When some delegates complained about their treatment in the press, they were asked by other attendees what they were doing about setting the record straight.
One of these refreshing presentations was given by the US Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Ambassador Charles A. Ray. As an example of preconceived notions, he described his fears before his arrival in Zimbabwe as “anticipation of Armagedon.“ He was pleased to find that many media reports had exaggerated the dire condition of the country. Though he did not gloss over past difficulties and issues, he stated openly, “Zimbabwe is open for business!”
In a private interview, Ambassador Ray claimed 50 years of government service (including both his time in the armed service and State Department). He will retire in two months. He re-emphasized his admiration for the Zimbabwe people, “…some of the most open and loving people I’ve ever met. Like many visitors, I came here for the wild life; I stayed for the Zimbabwe people.”
Vice President Mujuru and Governor Mathuthu impressed ATA delegates with their warmth, humor and commitment to promoting tourism. The Honorable Minister Engineer Walter Mzembi, Ministry of Tourism and Hospitality, introduced Vice President Mujuru as someone whose “life story is the history of our country.” She was a freedom fighter, then nation builder, named as one of the most powerful women in Africa. In her remarks, she emphasized that Zimbabwe was “on the verge of a social and economic boom.” As official Tourism Patron, she promised that Zimbabwe and Zambia would work together to prepare for the United Nations World Travel Organization (UNWTO) General Assembly to be held in both Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and across the Zambezi in Livingston, Zambia in August, 2013. This was UNWTO’s first Assembly in southern Africa and first hosted by two countries. Governor Mathuthu kept the delegates laughing with her lively sense of humor as she described the joys of being Governor of a state that contained one of the wonders of the world, Victoria Falls, plus Hwange National Park, one of Africa’s leading game preserves.
Several of the Congress seminars addressed marketing, publicity, or just plain “getting the word out” on film, in the press, but–probably most importantly–in social media and on the Internet. One expert pointed out that African marketing staff were not the only ones lacking in knowledge on using the Internet to their advantage. “Almost anyone over the age of forty needs to sharpen their skills in social media communication,” he stated. Delegates learned about blogs, Internet travel magazines, as well as important travel sites.
The five-day program included parties, dinners, an African culinary demonstration, a trip to Zambia, some golf, sunset cruises on the Zambezi River, a genuine Zimbabwe heritage village experience with dancing and local food, a visit to the almighty Victoria Falls, as well as a rock concert by Zimbabwe’s most beloved international rock star, Oliver Tuku Mtukudzi.
Africa Travel Association, 212-447-1357, www.AfricaTravelAssociation.org