By Gretinah Machingura
HARARE, April 26 (Xinhua) -- Zimbabwe and Zambia will jointly host the United Nations World Tourism Organization general assembly in August 2013, making it imperative for Zimbabwe to have an operational airline to enhance the transport system during the high-level meeting.
The country's debt ridden airline, Air Zimbabwe Holdings, was disbanded by government last month and replaced by a new company Air Zimbabwe Pvt Limited that is yet to start operating.
It would be ironic that the two countries that won the bid to co-host the big event both don't have national airlines.
It does not augur well for the hosts' image as well as for the growth of their tourism industries.
At least for Zimbabwe, chances of it having a running national airline are much better compared to Zambia whose national carrier collapsed three years ago.
Air Zimbabwe has six planes, most of them old, but recently acquired an Airbus A320 plane for leasing as it moves to revamp its flagging fortunes.
Transport Minister Nicholas Goche under whose ministry the company falls, told parliament last month that plans were underway to acquire more modern aircraft on lease basis to give the new company a competitive edge.
"Our aircraft is very old. Some of it, like the Boeing 737s and 767s are nearing end of their design life. They have become fuel guzzlers. They have no recliner seats and have no entertainment yet an air traveler is a discerning person who needs comfort, needs to relax and needs some entertainment," he told parliament then.
He said the new company would need a minimum of at least two long haul, two regional and two or three domestic aircraft that were either 30-50 seat or 70-100 seat to start operations.Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi who is in an ad hoc inter-ministerial committee that has been tasked with overseeing formation of the debt-free airline said at the weekend that he expected the airline to be operational by June.
"By the time we get to the hosting of the general assembly and well before that I can promise the nation that Air Zimbabwe will be back on its feet, it will be back in the skies again so we are planning very positively in anticipation of the airline re- bouncing," he told a local daily newspaper.
He added, "We work by cabinet deadlines and we should really be off the skies by the first of June otherwise what are we working for in tourism?"
The minister said the work of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) in promoting the country's tourism sector will be a futile exercise if the airline remains in limbo.
"What is the essence of my ZTA going out monthly to market a destination that is unable to distribute its arrivals internally," he said. He also confirmed that the Zimbabwe government had made South African Airways its official airline partner for the UNWTO as a result of problems at Air Zimbabwe.
Established in 1946, the old Air Zimbabwe was suffering from a 150 million U.S. dollars debt that saw it being suspended from International Air Transport Association (IATA) and having some of its aircraft impounded in London and South Africa last year.
The company started facing financial problems in the 1990s and these worsened over the years as government also failed to secure funds for a retrenchment exercise to trim its bloated workforce.
The financial woes exacerbated when the country abandoned its currency that had been rendered worthless by hyperinflation and adopted multiple currencies in 2009.
Some economic commentators say Air Zimbabwe has become a shell company not capable of attracting an investor.
As the UNWTO 2013 high level meeting approaches, there is growing chorus from tourism stakeholders in the country on the need for the country to revive the national airline so that it maximizes on revenue from delegates and other visitors.
More than 2 000 delegates are expected to attend the event.
Safari Operators of Zimbabwe president Emmanuel Fundira said recently that without a national airline, the country would lose the opportunity to capitalize on potential revenue."Strategies must be put in place now so that by next year the airline will be functioning on a normal basis," he said this week.
"Already other foreign airlines are reaping maximum benefits from the collapse of Air Zimbabwe," he added.
Emirates Airlines started flying into Zimbabwe this year while the South African Airways has reportedly increased flights to fill in the void left by Air Zimbabwe.
Emirates flies to Harare via Lusaka six times a week while Air Namibia, which is set to resume flights to Zimbabwe next month, will be flying into the country four times a week.The airline stopped plying the Zimbabwe route 13 years ago.