Monday, August 10, 2020

Air Botswana Finally Going our Way

The Corona pandemic is here to change almost every facet of life especially the way we have been accustomed to doing things. One of the things we have not been doing in this country is air travel.

For every country it is the choice they make in as far as transportation mode is concerned. This past week when I interviewed Mr David Magang, he highlighted to me that his legacy as a cabinet minister is found on our road network system. He says he retired content after he had achieved doing a network that links the entire country from Gaborone to Maun via three routes.

In 1994 I was actually perplexed when I arrived at Mogadishu International Airport to find a massive graveyard of planes right along the runway. It was obvious that these were not war wrecks because they were not showing any marks of any violent ending. However, most of them had been cannibalised. These were airplanes from the 1950s and 60s. This was a sure mark that the Somalis had been airborne much earlier than most of Africa.

Air travel has greatly compromised the development of road infrastructure in most parts of the continent. It amazed me when I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo to realise that there was no road connecting Lubumbashi and Kinshasa. Imagine when there was no road connecting Gaborone to Francistown.

Now that we have a road network we can be proud of, it is time we acclimatize ourselves to air travel. Air Botswana has existed in this country from pre-independence years with the name Bechuanaland National Airlines and it transformed over the years until now.

But Air Botswana was never an asset for the ordinary citizen. Unlike Botswana Railways which has been enjoyed by all classes in society, the national airline has been for a very long time the preserve of the rich and the foreign white traveller. The COVID-19 pandemic will possible unlock the local air travel as Air Botswana has finally taken a decision to resume local flights. It may be necessary for government to bring along a small subsidy for air travel until we have gotten ourselves addicted to it.

The announcement by Air Botswana to resume local air travel is in itself an announcement that business in this country is back on its feet. The airline will need to formulate a strategy to encourage local tourism. Now that Batswana with disposable incomes can no longer travel to Durban and Cape Town, the money needs to be spent in our country.

I am one of the well-travelled citizens of Botswana in as far as this country is concerned. But I have failed to convince others to travel locally to enjoy the beauty of our land. But I am no better than them because I was travelling at government expense. Botswana has some of the world’s most beautiful and untouched places. The Okavango stands out from the rest and once Batswana get a taste of this pristine destination, they will be hooked for good.

Air Botswana needs to work out a strategy in conjunction with government and HATAB the tourism controlling body in the country to get ordinary people to travelling by air. The risk of contracting Corona virus becomes less when travelling by air. This may become a contentious issue, but there is less risk as the time of exposure gets reduced.

HATAB will certainly have to come to the party by reducing accommodation costs. The prices must come as low as possible because in as much as Batswana are not accustomed to air travel, paying for accommodation is not in their culture as well. They would want to travel to Kasane and lodge at a cousin’s house.

Government will have to reduce travel by road by its staff especially at a time when we are struggling with fuel issues. The country’s economy needs to be fired up, and air travel and local tourism are certainly the two most critical players in this dream. Looking at what is happening in South Africa, we certainly are a long way from welcoming our well-resourced neighbours from the south. Convoys of 4x4s could be streaming into the country right now as they always do to escape their bitter cold.

Air travel is not always about affordability to the customer, it is all about a paradigm shift. Take for instance the fact that BDF’s old guard has been resisting the idea of transporting troops by planes to operational areas. The military in Botswana is endowed with a reasonably large fleet of transport planes. The three Hercules C-130 are just what the doctor ordered for the turn-around logistics strategy for the military.

The entire private sector will need to participate in the whole exercise of making the economy float again. Companies must use air transport as well. This will not only boost the aviation industry but it will also reduce traffic on our roads leading to the automatic reduction of road accidents.

We are already seeing business owners that are dependent on bringing their merchandise from China turning to air cargo. The international airport in Gaborone has its remaining pulse and heart beat from the trickling air cargo traffic. It has become clear as well that it is not always ideal to travel to that part of the world to buy stock. Things can be ordered online and that comes with huge savings.

Air travel and local tourism can actually become a home grown economic stimulus for our country and we may not need to look up to international monitory institutions for our economic redemption.

If this strategy to move local tourists by air succeeds, then Air Botswana will be truly flying our way. This airline has in the past refused to harken to the voice of the ordinary citizens as people were protesting the air fees that were not affordable. Furthermore, the airline will have a great opportunity to expand by increasing its fleet through this local growth. There are so many airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy, and Air Botswana must benefit from such liquidations for their growth. 

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