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Zimbabwe Tourists Flock to Victoria Falls, Shun Other Sites

Blessed with natural beauty, Zimbabwe was once a destination for thousands of world travelers. Amid an economic and humanitarian crisis, tourism in the southern African nation is at an all time low -- except at Victoria Falls. There, the government shields tourists from the privation and oppression many Zimbabweans complain they suffer.

A reporter for VOA, who must remain anonymous for security reasons, files this undercover report from Bulawayo.

The mighty Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world located on Zimbabwe's northern border with Zambia, is still a hot spot for tourists, although their numbers have dropped by 30 percent since 2000, when the Zimbabwe government first began to seize white-owned commercial farms.

But here, on what is called a “booze cruise” down the Zambezi River, where the wine flows much like water, tourists are not thinking about Zimbabwe's plight – the fact that 90 percent of the country is unemployed, that public demonstrations are forbidden and often brutally suppressed, and that something as simple as buying a packet of sugar can get you killed in a stampede of desperate shoppers.

Instead, hippopotamus, elephant and crocodile are welcome distractions. And as tourists enjoy the ultimate African vacation, they are shielded from the violence, poverty and desperation that exist in the rest of the country.

With the exception of the Falls, tourism in Zimbabwe is at an all-time low.

In early July, at a famous place further inland, we saw no tourists all week. Great Zimbabwe is a collection of ruins that are one of the most important archeological sites in the country, and what Zimbabwe was named after. The scene is deserted. The only other people there are the workers.

In the majestic Chimanimani Hotel dining room in the mountainous Chimanimani area, empty chairs sit at empty tables. They have not had a single diner all day, and no one the day before. Yet all the tables are set and ready -- the silver polished, the napkins folded.

Zimbabweans cannot even afford to see their own country's beauty.

One man we spoke with is a refugee in his own land. "Life here in Zimbabwe, [is] so terrible,” he said. “There is no food in the shops. There's virtually nothing. There's no water. There's no electricity. I mean, the basic necessities are no longer here."

Zimbabwe's long-time president, Robert Mugabe, denies the allegations of unrest and shortages of basic necessities in his country. Mr. Mugabe and his government say they welcome tourists from all over the world.

Ironically, the majority of Zimbabweans are more interested in getting out of the country. It is estimated that more than 2 million have illegally emigrated to South Africa in the last 10 years, escaping the country's collapsing economy.

"Here in Zimbabwe, each day that ends, ends without something to eat," one man told us, but he asked to remain anonymous for his own safety. He snuck into South Africa as many others do, but lacking the right papers was deported back home. "Maybe a new government (can) to come in place and let this economy work."

Zimbabwe is a country many others once visited for its allure.

"It's a remarkably beautiful country," says David Coltart, a Member of Parliament and the nation's opposition political party.

"It has beautiful people and it's a beautiful land. All it's missing is democracy, and when we get that ingredient, it's going to be one of the best countries in the world," he says.

To the tourists back on the booze cruise, Zimbabwe, located on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River, is placid and calm. But to those who cannot leave, it is a turbulent country on the edge.