Is it ethical to visit 'outpost of tyranny'?

Zimbabwe's wildlife industry struggles as many tourists steer clear of the Mugabe regime.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Not long ago, travelers longing for adventure and wildlife in Africa had an obvious destination: Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

This small city on the Zambezi river not only boasted the mile-wide falls - its own "wonder of the world" - but game parks full of elephants, safari guides aplenty, and hotels catering to everyone from backpacking bungee-jumpers to would-be colonialists. It was a regional tourism center.

That was before Zimbabwe's collapse - before President Robert Mugabe encouraged the takeover of white-owned farms, closed independent newspapers, and restricted political opposition.

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Last week, Mr. Mugabe's party trounced the opposition in a parliamentary vote that international observers have decried as rigged. The country faces severe food shortages and the US government has labeled Zimbabwe an "outpost of tyranny."

So now, travelers face a more difficult decision: Is it ethical to vacation in a country where tourist dollars help fund repressive leaders? A traveler might pay the hotel, but Zimbabwe's government collects taxes from tourism-related business.

Or does abandoning the country worsen problems faced by individuals who have nothing to do with politics?

Particularly in the region around Victoria Falls, people depend on tourists for jobs, money, and food - all of which are scarce these days. Conservation programs also rely on tourist-generated income.

"As a traveler, you'd want to define your purpose," says Paula Mirk, vice president for education at the Maine-based Institute for Global Ethics. "What are the core values supporting that purpose? Do they conflict with the values of democracy?"

Close to a dozen tourists interviewed recently in Victoria Falls said the financial boost they give locals outweighs any unintentional funding of Mugabe.

"From the ground level, you're supporting individuals who have done nothing wrong," says Oscar Moseley from England, who has been traveling through Africa.

But many vacationers have opted out of Zimbabwe, either for ethical reasons or because of concern that the March 31 election could have turned violent.

Victoria Falls looks like an abandoned mining town, crawling with desperate hawkers who swarm the few sightseers.

A young Zimbabwean who runs an art gallery says he used to sell five to 10 stone sculptures per day, mostly to Americans. Now he sells only one or two per week.

Across the street, men in second-hand clothing clamor to sell carved wooden animals. Many of them came to Victoria Falls for jobs in the tourist sector. But with some estimating unemployment at 55 percent, hawking is the one of the few options.

In the nearby township of Chinotimba, home to many of the city's black workers, a man named Zuka chiseled a piece of wood, crafting an elephant. Selling curios to tourists is his only income, he says, but business is down. He says he can afford only two meals a day - tea and bread in the morning, a starchy staple known as "sadza," or corn meal, in the evening.

The wood he whittles was probably chopped down from national parkland, according to conservationists. Deforestation has become one of the main environmental concerns in western Zimbabwe, as people who can't get jobs in hotels or gift shops fell trees to make carvings. Conservationists fear the habitat that draws visitors is being destroyed.

"It's going to take generations to replace these trees," says Charles Brightman, who runs the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit, which combats environmental degradation while giving locals employment. He says poaching has also increased. People are hungry, so they are more tempted to hunt impala and other game in protected parks.

Two hours down the road, rangers at the Hwange National Park say they have seen the same trend. Of the 30 rangers based at the once-popular Main Camp, most are dedicated to antipoaching efforts.

With hardly any tourists, no one needs to stick around camp to lead game drives and walks. Recently, a camp log book showed it had been weeks since the last visitor took a ranger-guided hike.

Without tourist dollars, national parks are strapped for funds. According to a ranger, Hwange cannot afford to run the man-made water holes that attracted animals to this park in the first place. Conservationists tell stories of landowners, desperate for money, allowing unscrupulous hunters to shoot protected animals.

"There has been just wholesale destruction of large game," says Brian Gratwicke, who runs ZimConservation, a Washington-based online community of scientists and conservationists interested in Zimbabwe.

But it is unclear whether more tourism would mean improved facilities and less poaching. Much of the money earned by the park system goes to the central government, which distributes it at will. The landowners rumored to allow full-scale poaching are said to be well connected.

Doug Wilson, a tourist from Ontario, says he suspected much of the tourism-generated revenue went to Mugabe. "He's strangling the country," he says. But he feels comfortable traveling and spending money in Zimbabwe. "It's for each person to decide their own ethics," Mr. Wilson says. But with the tips he gave to locals and the crafts he bought, he says, "I think it probably does more help than harm."

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