The United Nations world tourism body has chosen Zimbabwe to lead its Commission for Africa, the continent-wide group for tourism development for the next two years.
The UN World Tourism Organisation said that conflict-troubled Mali also joins the African tourism commission.
Zimbabwe and Zambia are co-hosting the 155-nation tourism organisation’s summit, held every two years, at the resort of Victoria Falls on their common border.
The six-day general assembly is to be formally opened by the two countries’ presidents, Robert Mugabe and Michael Sata, later on Sunday.
The United Nations said in a statement that the 31 July elections in Zimbabwe, bitterly disputed over alleged rigging, “will be respected by the assembly”.
Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States have condemned Zimbabwe’s 31 July elections for breaches of democratic rights, but they are not members of the UN’s tourism organisation.
Western governments are generally sceptical over the value of the biennial meeting attended mostly by developing nations with a poor record in tourism, conservation and political stability.
The two host nations automatically take over the presidency of the UN tourism organisation during the summit, which is expected to be attended by about 1 200 delegates from governments and tourism enterprises worldwide.
The last such gathering was held in South Korea in 2011. Cambodia and Colombia are on the short list to hold the next summit in 2015.
The UN’s decision to give Zimbabwe co-host status was criticised as a “disgraceful show of support and a terribly timed award of false legitimacy” for Mugabe’s authoritarian rule, by the independent UN Watch human rights group on Friday.
“Amid reports of election rigging and continuing human rights abuses, Zimbabwe is the last country that should be legitimised by a UN summit of any kind,” said Hillel Neuer, head of the Geneva-based group founded to monitor adherence by the world body to its universal charter on democracy and human rights.
He said Mugabe’s propagandists sought gloss over the collapse of the economy, years of political turmoil and the persecution of opponents to “use the event to rebrand the post-election period”.
“The notion that the UN should spin this country as a lovely tourist destination is, frankly, sickening,” Neuer said.
The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force of independent environmentalists said on Sunday that extra animals have been transported by state wildlife authorities to a poaching-prone nature preserve at Victoria Falls to “repopulate” the preserve ahead of the meeting for the benefit of visiting delegates.
The trust said giraffes, zebra and hundreds of wildebeest, also known as the gnu, eland, Africa’s largest antelope, and the smaller deer-like impala antelope caught in southern Zimbabwe have been released in the 12km² Zambezi National Park overlooking the Zambezi River and the Victoria Falls.
“Zimbabwe always claims to have an abundance of animals, so why is it necessary to move these animals to where the delegates of Unwto will be able to see them?” said Johnny Rodrigues, head of the trust.
Zimbabwe’s often violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms since 2000 disrupted the agriculture based economy that in turn led to world record inflation, a sharp decline in tourism and the collapse of power and water utilities and health and education services.
Unemployment spiralled, spurring wildlife poaching. Deforestation increased as trees were felled for domestic fuel during regular power outages and logging of protected hardwood trees, even in nature preserves, saw the timber illegally exported and sold to Asian furniture makers.
The state Forestry Commission has estimated 300 000ha² of woodland were lost last year.
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation, meanwhile, advised participants at Victoria Falls that no conference documentation will be distributed on paper to save trees “in compliance with the United Nations system’s environmental protection policy”.
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