One strand of the silver lining in the very dark cloud that is COVID-19 reveals a peculiar advantage of a model of tourism that was stitched together during the days of President Sir Ketumile Masire.Unlike other African countries like Kenya, Botswana mostly provides exclusive luxury safari experiences that come with a very high price tag. This is known as the high-value, low-volume tourism strategy. In Botswana, its business model takes the form of safari companies leasing a large section of land and acquiring exclusive rights to provide premium safari experiences within such land.While COVID-19 has crippled global tourism, Botswana’s tourism strategy seems to be a perfect fit for this era – and a tourism expert agrees with that assessment.
“If the high-end tourists were to visit Botswana, they will not have much challenge with extreme social distancing,” says Professor Joseph Mbaiwa who is the Director of the University of Botswana’s Okavango Research Institute in Maun. “Some of the high-end lodges have about eight rooms, some 10 rooms and the maximum is 24 rooms. In addition, they usually do game drives in open vehicles. I am pretty sure that operators will ensure that there is no overcrowding in game drive vehicles. These are high-paying tourists who pay up to US$4000 per night or P40 000 and are usually given all they need in terms of tourism facilities.”Social distancing and small groups of people are some of the main health measures that WHO has recommended in the global fight against COVID-19.While the high-value, low-volume tourism strategy might seem a perfect fit for the COVID-19 era, there is the ticklish issue of who the main beneficiaries would be.
In the past, Mbaiwa has stated that there is need to revisit this strategy because it promotes foreign ownership of hot spot tourism areas such as Okavango Delta and Chobe. That view is widely shared domestically and writing in the journal Tourism Analysis in 2011, Lefatshe Magole argued that while conservation of biological diversity appears to be on course, visitation and hence revenue, has remained stunted in most parks and reserves.“Moreover, the high-value, low-volume tourism strategy appears to have contributed towards enclave tourism, with a large foreign ownership of tour operator companies and repatriation of profits from Botswana. This compromises yet another principle of sustainability, social equity. It would appear that the high-value, low-volume tourism strategy is anti-sustainability and hence not suitable for a developing country like Botswana with a large rural population that is still highly dependent on natural resources,” wrote Magole, an eco-tourism specialist who, two years prior, had written another article titled “The Okavango: Whose Delta is it?”
From London, Stephen Corry, the head of a pressure group called Survival International, has attempted to answer that question. A bare-knuckle fighter, Corry led an international fight that ended with the Botswana government being forced by the High Court to restore residency rights to Bushmen communities living in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve (CKGR). De Beers, which had discovered diamond deposits in the CKGR and wanted it cleared of human settlements, ended up selling its licence to another mining company. In tangential response to Magole’s question, Corry has described the Okavango Delta as a “white ethno-state.”
Indeed, from its de facto ownership to the management of its lodges to the currency those lodges use to where its profits are repatriated, the Delta is part of Botswana in name only.When it was revealed that the Tawana Land Board was surreptitiously facilitating an application for a Delta concession area for British tycoon, Richard Branson, former Maun West MP and Batawana kgosikgolo, Tawana Moremi, made his own revelation about having long failed to acquire the land that the government wanted to give to Branson. The hospitality establishments in the Delta are managed by white couples who, with the knowledge of the owners, have been accused of actively keeping black people out. A former cabinet minister recalls an incident of a drunk lodge manager asking him why he and a travelling companion, then Botswana Defence Force commander, were holidaying in the Delta “when you people have cattle posts.”
As many more Batswana, Mbaiwa laments the fact that big safari companies in the Okavango Delta (some of which are registered in tax havens) evade tax, repatriate profits and contract marketing services to foreign agents and companies. While the government has quoted lowly figures as representing this revenue leakage (“about 30 to 40 percent”), the African Natural Resources Centre, a subsidiary of the African Development Bank, quoted a much higher figure (“over 70 percent”).As former Mmadinare MP and future Vice President, Ponatshego Kedikilwe, found out years ago when he and members of a parliamentary committee wanted to book accommodation at a lodge in the Delta, guests booked not locally in Botswana but abroad. The lodge gave a secretary to Kedikilwe’s committee (a parliament staffer), who was facilitating the planned visit, a South African telephone number to call and make the booking. For those making a booking and paying for services at the Delta itself, the prices are quoted in a western currency (United States dollar) and some guests pays using a global payment technology (VISA) administered from a western city. Where cash is used, lodges generally prefer that it be an international currency.Decades-old experience shows that giving (mostly indigenous) citizens a stake in lucrative tourism will not be easy.
The lease agreement between the Tawana Land Board and (expatriate) tour operators contains a right-of-first-refusal clause. Right of refusal is a legal principle in terms of which a seller must give a party an opportunity to match a price at which a third party agrees to buy a specified asset on the same terms offered to the third party. When the lease for a concession area ends, all bidders, including the sitting tenant, compete in an open tender and upon evaluation, the latter is given the opportunity to match the overall highest bidder’s proposal. In the event the sitting tenant has to vacate a site, s/he has to be fully compensated for a site that would have been developed with huge sums of money over a period of time. This clause plays no small part in the racial composition of the Delta. Some tour operators have been known to fight tooth and nail, in some cases going all the way to the Court of Appeal in order to retain control of the lucrative establishments they operate and in such effort, retaining the services of highly accomplished South African advocates.
Ultimately, while Botswana’s tourism strategy may help it navigate the COVID-19 tourism business environment, the real beneficiaries will be those who have long benefitted from it and thrown the government bread crumbs in the form of under-paid tax.