The rise of the Ruins

2010-06-06 11:20

Two years ago vervet monkeys were the main visitors crawling

through Zimbabwe’s royal ruins, but now tourists are returning in numbers in

another sign of the nation’s fledgling recovery.

Cars drawing trailers and motorbikes bearing foreign number plates

queue up at the gates to Great Zimbabwe, the ancient site where Shona kings once


Zimbabwe’s unity government, created last year, has stabilised the

nation after decades of autocratic rule by President Robert Mugabe led to

political and economic turmoil which in turn hit tourism numbers.

Now the tourists are coming back in droves.

Hazel Gallagher, who like many of those exploring Great Zimbabwe’s

sweeping granite corridors is from neighbouring South Africa, is among 30?000

visitors expected at the ruins this year.

“This time we have come with four other family friends,” she says,

having already visited twice before. “The place is just amazing. How they

managed to build this place still amazes me.”

While this year’s visitor estimate is more than double last year’s

number, it is still some way off the 120?000 who passed through the site in

1999, says Godfrey Mahachi, Zimbabwe’s museums boss.

“Judging by the number of arrivals so far, this year is bound to be

a better year,” he says.

“We are also expecting large numbers of visitors during and ­after

the World Cup.”

The ruins are a World Heritage Site, with walls that soar 20m,

swooping around a conical tower in the main structure where Shona kings ruled

from the 12th to 16th centuries.

Their kingdom held sway over a trading empire that controlled

nearby gold mines.

The gold was used in commerce with Arab traders, thus providing a

link to countries as far away as India and China.

The name Zimbabwe means “great houses of stone” in Shona, inspired

by the ruins which have become a source of intense ­national pride.

“This is the biggest ancient structure in southern Africa,” notes

Edward Chidawa, a tour guide at the site since 1995.

“Although Zimbabwe has had its fair share of troubles, this is the

place to be for tourists and anybody who wants to learn about the history of


Eight carved stone birds, still of mysterious significance, were

found at the site and are now a ­national emblem.

The steady decline of tourist numbers between 1999 and last year

meant that maintenance ­suffered at Great Zimbabwe, which relies on entry fees

to ­finance its small museum and ­preservation ­efforts.

“The resources we get through the payments for viewing Great

Zimbabwe are ploughed back into the conservation efforts,” Mahachi says.

“However, there is little you can do when you don’t have

significant arrivals,” he says. This has led to a number of restoration projects

being shelved.

These included a plan to use a computer system to monitor movement

in the stone bricks, which are held together without mortar and are thus

susceptible to shifts over time, Mahachi says.

As tourists return, and with Zimbabwe now using the US dollar as

its main currency, museum officials hope to get the conservation efforts back on

track, says Mahachi.

Hoteliers in the southeastern city of Masvingo are also hoping that

their own fortunes will be revived as the ruins are the area’s only ­major


Fredrick Kasese, chief executive of the Regency Hotel Group, which

owns three locations in the city, says bookings in 2008 were at only 31% for the

year. So far this year bookings are at 41% and he expects a boost during the

World Cup.

“The situation in the industry is shaping up quite nicely,” he


“The perception out there has been that Zimbabwe is hostile but

there has been a paradigm shift over the past two years. The litmus test will be

during the World Cup as we try to get more visitors here.”

Nationally, tourist arrivals in 2008 were at 223?000. The national

parks agency says it has 100?000 bookings for lodges and safaris just for the

World Cup month – mainly from South Africans seeking to escape the crowds at


“This year the situation is much better,” says Jama Ngulube, the

manager of Lodge at the Ancient City.

“South Africans are the biggest group of foreigners coming here,”

he says, “although we have other guests from Australia and Spain and last time

we had some people from Jamaica who were here to visit the ruins.”

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