HARARE, Zimbabwe – As Zimbabwe tried to spruce up its tourism image, militants of President Robert Mugabe's party launched raids at boating clubs and tourism lodges on the shores of the capital's main fishing and leisure area, tour operators said Sunday.
A safari lodge about 18 miles (30 kilometers) west of Harare reopened after being sealed off by more than 200 militants since Friday, said owner Gary Stafford. The seven-chalet Kuimba Shiri lodge is a popular getaway for locals, foreign visitors, diplomats and U.N. staff.
Militants told witnesses more than 20 clubs and holiday facilities were being targeted on the shores and hinterland of Lake Chivero, a dam five miles (8 kilometers) in length — bordered by a wildlife preserve — that serves as Harare's main water supply reservoir.
Incidents began Friday, coinciding with the launch of a new campaign by Tourism and Hospitality Minister Walter Mzembi who branded Zimbabwe as "the world of wonders," during a convention in Spain.
After collapsing during a decade of political and economic turmoil, tourist visits have crept upward since 2009 when a coalition government between Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader, abandoned the hyperinflationary local currency and adopted the U.S. dollar as legal tender.
Tourists had been kept away from the famed Victoria Falls in northwestern Zimbabwe and the country's animal reserves because of recurring political violence and acute shortages of gasoline and the most basic goods during the nation's economic meltdown. Victoria Falls is seen as one of the world's natural wonders.
The change to hard currency saw gas stations and empty store shelves replenished — with foodstuffs and luxuries still being mainly imported from neighboring South Africa as once self-sufficient local industries battled to resume production.
After years of neglect, tourist services, the third largest hard currency earner after agricultural exports and mining a decade ago, were being revamped too, and advertising promotions were mounted at several international travel fairs.
The raids at Lake Chivero follow similar incidents in the mountainous northeastern trout fishing and hiking district of Nyanga. There, holiday cottages were searched by militants and visitors reported being forced to show identification documents by rag-tag groups not in official police or security service uniforms. In some areas, the militants also manned makeshift road blocks.
Calls for elections this year by Mugabe to end the shaky power sharing deal have heightened political tensions and spurred fresh demands for the implementation of Mugabe's policy of empowerment that calls for 51 percent ownership of businesses by blacks.
Stafford said the leaders of the militants took an inventory of his lodge's belongings and "there was no violence or looting." They told him they were taking stock and evaluating lakeside properties under the empowerment program.
One visiting couple was holed up in the lodge for a day and "we weren't allowed any guests," Stafford said.
Boating clubs and a mobile home park were also visited by militants, some armed with sticks and chanting slogans of Mugabe's party.
Property owners said they called the tourism and environment ministries to seek their intervention.
Witnesses said militants occupied a mobile home at one Lake Chivero campsite after saying it could stay open as long as no property or utensils were removed. The militants, who took nothing and bought their own food from a nearby store, completed an inventory of items at the site and told workers they wanted impoverished nearby communities to have a share in the lake's leisure assets.
In 2000, Mugabe ordered the seizure of thousands of white-owned farms for handing over to blacks to correct what he called unfair colonial era ownership. The often-violent seizures of white-owned farms disrupted the agriculture-based economy in the former regional breadbasket and have continued in recent months, leaving just 300 whites in farming areas.
Critics of Mugabe say the those seizures and proposed business takeovers were a ploy all along to shore up the flagging support of his ZANU-PF among the nation's voters.