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Victoria Falls at dawn -- no theme park needed? Photo by Dennis Cox

Victoria Falls at dawn — no theme park needed? Photo by Dennis Cox

The news that Zimbabwe is planning a Disneyland-style theme park near Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, is yet another example that Robert Mugabe’s corrupt, brutal and clueless rule is ruining that beautiful central African country — for both its citizens and tourists.

One writer has likened it to building casinos next to the Pyramids in Egypt, and I can’t disagree. (Cairo has enough tacky papyrus shops near the Pyramids as it is.)

I’ve been lucky enough to twice visit Vic Falls — also known in local tradition as “The Smoke That Thunders” — and consider it among the most stunning places I’ve ever seen, on a par with Arizona’s Grand Canyon or China’s mist-enveloped, multi-peaked Mt. Huangshan.

The last time I visited Vic Falls, I saw Mugabe speak, shortly after he had taken office in 1980 following a long guerrilla war against the racist Rhodesian government of Ian Smith. Like many baby boomers, I was happy to see the Smith regime come to an end and had high hopes for the new nation of Zimbabwe.

At the time, Mugabe promised to foster a spirit of national reconciliation, but unlike South Africa’s visionary liberator Nelson Mandela, Mugabe has proven to be a tyrant, driving his once-prosperous country into the ground economically and fixing elections and terrorizing opponents to keep himself in office.

Now, in a quixotic effort to revive his country’s tourism revenues, his regime has announced plans to build a theme park complex in the shadow of Vic Falls that comes complete with hotels, shopping malls, banks (where foreigners can open no-doubt shady accounts), exhibition halls, conference facilities and casinos.

The announcement by the Zimbabwean tourism minister was made at a gathering of the United Nations World Tourism Organization general assembly, which Zimbabwe is co-hosting with neighboring Zambia (a circumstance which UN Watch, a human rights group, has denounced as a “disgraceful show of support [by the UN]…for a brutal, corrupt and authoritarian regime”).

While early reports have suggested the park would be an actual Disneyland complete with famous mouse, that seems to be a misreading of the tourism minister’s statement, which likened the idea to a “Disneyland in Africa.” I’ve seen no evidence that Disney would be involved in any way — and I certainly hope they wouldn’t.

Zimbabwe says it’s prepared to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the complex in hopes of drawing more tourists, who are understandably put off by the brutality and economic ruin that has marked the Mugabe regime.

Yes, things have improved a bit of late, with the Zimbabwean currency stabilizing somewhat and tourism revenues growing earlier this year, but the country remains desperately in need of clean water, more food production and other basic services far more than it needs a theme park.

If Mugabe were running the country in a manner other than his own personal fiefdom, I’m sure that Vic Falls would draw perfectly well as a tourist destination in its own right. Combined with game park safaris and other attractions, Zimbabwe could offer some of the most majestic sights in Africa.

But the next time I re-visit Vic Falls, I plan to see it from the Zambian side — unless Mugabe and his thugs have finally departed.

 

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According to government and private surveys:

  • Leading-edge baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) and seniors account for four out of every five dollars spent on luxury travel today.
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