VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe - Tourists have abandoned Zimbabwe since the deterioration of the country's political climate, contributing to a severe economic decline that economists say shows little sign of recovery.
The disappearance of international travelers is painfully evident at this vacation center in western Zimbabwe, where the Zambezi River plunges 300 feet into a cloud of mist that has created a rain forest in the middle of the dry African savannah.
The downtown casino is quiet, except for a few lonely slot-machine players. Nightclubs echo with emptiness. There is no jostling for prime positions to view the thundering waterfall.
Every tourist is a rock star, surrounded by a swarm of desperate admirers selling carved curios, cold sodas, and ponchos to wear while viewing the cascade. Young men offer to exchange Zimbabwe's rapidly depreciating dollar at eight times the official rate.
There is no shortage of personal service. At the elegant Victoria Falls Hotel, where baboons and vervet monkeys patrol the grounds and elephants occasionally stray into the ornate English gardens, a galaxy of white-coated waiters surrounds a black hole of empty tables in the Livingstone Dining Room.
"This would have been the season when the Americans come here, but you can see there is nobody," said Pinias Sibanda, the director of Gallery Munhumutapa, which specializes in soapstone statuary.
Zimbabwe officials blame the decline on uncharitable media coverage of President Robert Mugabe's March reelection and the falloff of tourism after Sept. 11. The government has initiated a campaign to invite tour agencies and travel writers to improve the country's image.
The government's last attempt to induce positive coverage backfired when many travel writers wrote about the country's turmoil instead. "We have now decided to invite the international travel writers, but we are going to be selective on who we invite," Zimbabwe Tourism Council head Herbert Tsikire told the government newspaper, the Herald.
The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe last month said tourism earnings dropped from a peak of $239.2 million in 1996 to $81.4 million last year. But even those numbers don't reflect the severity of the decline, said John Robertson, an economist in the capital, Harare.
Many visitors are small traders from neighboring countries who come to buy goods with foreign currency, which has doubled in value since Mugabe's disputed election, Robertson said. They resell the goods in their home countries.
"People are coming here, but they're coming here to shop," he said. "If you stay longer than 24 hours, you're classified as a tourist." Hotel-occupancy rates are mired below 20 percent.
The decline of tourism is a metaphor for the ruination of Zimbabwe's economy in the two years since Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party pulled out all the stops to retain power. The government has taken over most of the nation's white-owned commercial farms, contributing to food shortages and an exodus of farmers from the country.
The country's top tourism talent - hotel managers, chefs, guides - is leaving, some going no farther than the new hotels that have sprouted like bamboo in Livingstone, on the Zambia side of Victoria Falls.
"All the good people have left," said Malcolm Ainscough, a Zimbabwean tour operator who moved his business to South Africa, where he said business is booming with American tour groups despite fears after Sept. 11.
For most tourists to Zimbabwe, the government campaign to suppress political opposition is invisible. Most clashes have occurred in rural areas, far from the game parks and attractions.
Most Zimbabweans are unfailingly polite to outsiders.
Nevertheless, Ainscough said, "even when I tell tourists it is safe to go to Zimbabwe, they're nervous... . A lot of them don't want to go on moral grounds because they object to what the government is doing."
Victoria Falls, named by 19th-century explorer David Livingstone to honor the British monarch, has had ups and downs in popularity in recent decades.
Tourists fled in the 1970s when Mugabe's Marxist rebels fought to topple the government of what then was Rhodesia, and they stayed away again after he was elected in 1980 and his North Korean-trained troops massacred thousands in southwestern Matabeleland.
But they returned in huge numbers in the last decade, when Zimbabwe basked in the regional glow of goodwill after neighboring South Africa emerged from apartheid.
Mugabe's increasingly radical politics, which blames the country's woes on "imperialist" whites with colonial ambitions, has driven many away, and gay tourists wrote off the country after the president attacked homosexuals.
"Now we're back to what it was like with Rhodesia in the 1970s," said Ainscough.
Most tour operators are pessimistic about a quick recovery. They say hotels will have to offer cut-rate packages to attract the mass market, and luxury travelers will take even longer to return.
"You could have a new president here tomorrow and tourists wouldn't come back immediately," Ainscough said.