Last month, after years of discussion and a £120 million loan from China, Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls International Airport was finally opened by President Robert Mugabe.
There are no direct flights from the UK as yet, but with a runway capable of handling the world’s largest planes, plus 28 aircraft docking bays which could triple the capacity of the old airport to 1.5 million passengers a year, it looks set to usher in a new era of tourism for Zimbabwe.
When I landed there from Johannesburg a few weeks before the official opening, there was already a buzz in the air – particularly at the Victoria Falls Hotel, where the patio restaurant was full of diners in celebratory mood.
One official told me that between 3,000 and 5,000 visitors are arriving by foot each day on the Zimbabwe side of the falls (which straddle the border with Zambia), a clear sign that the country is back on the tourism map.
The number of arrivals should increase dramatically now that the airport is complete. What can visitors expect? On the one hand, “Zim” is spectacular, a place the BBC’s former Africa correspondent Michael Buerk called “the most beautiful country on the continent”.
It has impressive natural features: mighty rivers (the Zambezi and Limpopo), game-filled plains (at Mana Pools), a lake half the size of Belgium (Kariba), a national park the size of Wales (Hwange) and boulder-strewn hills adorned with ancient San art (Matobo).
But it is also a country that has seen horrific genocide, its people brutally suppressed by politicians who have tried to quash democracy, destroying a once-thriving agricultural economy and creating hunger, homelessness and 80 per cent unemployment.
Despite all this, Zimbabweans are positive people, their motto being “We’ll make a plan”. Now that Robert Mugabe is 93, their plan – of a country without him – is gaining momentum.
Tourism will be a big part of that. I have been back to Zimbabwe every year for the past three decades, to visit the country of my birth. On my latest trip, I was amazed by the number of old friends returning to tourism as a way of making a living.
Over two weeks, every camp I stayed in was full of international guests, enjoying an experience every bit as enriching as in any other southern African country – and substantially cheaper than neighbouring Botswana or Zambia.
For those who want to see more of the country, new internal flights on the low-cost FastJet airline, together with private aviation companies, make this possible.
I combined flying and driving around the country’s three biggest tourist destinations – Victoria Falls, Hwange and Lake Kariba. Here is my guide to the highlights.