THE 20th session of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) general assembly, which opened at Victoria Falls on Saturday, "is one of the best attended" tourism gatherings, said Zimbabwe Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi.

This gathering gives industry players the chance to discuss how to grow the sector, which experts say is one of the fastest-growing economic sectors, especially in Africa.

Zimbabwe and Zambia are co-hosting the biggest gathering of tourism industry players and it is expected that both countries — which share the Victoria Falls — will benefit from increased tourism.

On Saturday, Zimbabwe was elected chair of the organisation’s Commission for Africa at its meeting in Livingstone, Zambia.

Mr Mzembi said this was a "global endorsement" of Zimbabwe as a tourist destination.

However, Zimbabwe’s co-hosting of the gathering has been criticised. A human rights lobby group, the UN Watch said on Friday that Zimbabwe’s co-hosting of the event was a "disgraceful show of support and a terribly timed award of false legitimacy" for Robert Mugabe’s government, whose victory in elections held at the end of last month has been disputed as having been rigged by Mr Mugabe’s rivals.

"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, the head of the UN Watch.

Zimbabwe’s image as a safe and worthy tourism destination has been bartered in the past few years as a result of political violence and the taking over of bird sanctuaries and safaris by alleged Zanu (PF) officials.

This saw tourist arrivals into Zimbabwe decline although the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) says hosting the tourism general assembly will help restore good perceptions about visiting the country. The ZTA is expecting tourist arrivals to firm by 50% this year.

"The decline in arrivals last year was global and happened in almost every market. However, in our case, arrivals were strongly pulled down by mainland Africa, which fell by a total of 479,397 arrivals," said ZTA spokesman Sugar Chagonda.

Increased tourist arrivals, while benefiting Zambia and Zimbabwe’s economies, are also considered as a crucial gateway for investments, officials said.

Chairman of the Zambia National Tourist Board Erroly Hickies said tourism had the "potential to create thousands of jobs" and added that "many investors first came to a country as tourists before deciding to invest" in it.

Zimbabwe is desperate for foreign direct investments which economists say are key in reviving the country’s struggling economy although pronouncements on the controversial indigenisation policy have resulted in some investors staying away from the country.

The country’s mining and agricultural sectors — the traditional mainstays of the economy — are battling to emerge out of a prolonged period of subdued capital investments. To stave off the continued poor performance of the economy, whose growth projection for 2013 has now been revised down to 3.4% from 5%, Zimbabwe has pinned its hopes on foreign currency earnings from international tourists.

UNWTO secretary-general Taleb Rifai, who has already arrived in Victoria Falls for the general assembly, said the indaba was an important event not only for Zimbabwe and Zambia but also for Africa and the rest of the world.

He said the UNWTO was expecting successful deliberations and also spoke highly of "the civilised and smooth" manner in which elections had been conducted in Zimbabwe.