Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Citizen empowerment in tourism industry eludes Botswana Government

The potential of the tourism industry to impact positively and directly on the lives of ordinary citizens in Botswana, and the extent to which participation of locals in the tourism business can make a difference has become a subject of scrutiny.

So much so that, there is a loud debate going on regarding the feasibility of existing Government policy initiatives as well as interpretation of what would best improve the lives of communities as well as empower citizen investors through the Industry.

Stuart Baartman, Managing Director of Karibu Safari, speaking to the Sunday Standard in an interview recently, expressed the view that, correctly conceived, citizen investor empowerment cannot be achieved merely by funding new solely citizen-owned projects since it would be unrealistic to expect them to compete fairly against their already established expatriate counter-parts.
“The ideal starting point would be to come up with a national Tourism Development Fund which would then fund citizens to buy shares from already well established safari companies,” said Baartman.

In that way, they would be exposed to the real world of Tourism business.
Baartman acknowledged, there are some locals who worked, some still work for Safari Companies, with vast experience of running a Safari and they comprehend fully well the dynamics of the wild, sometimes even more than the owners of Safari Companies.

“The ideal starting point would be to come up with a national Tourism Development Fund which would then fund citizens to buy shares from already well established safari companies,” said Baartman.

In that way, they would be exposed to the real world of Tourism business.
Baartman acknowledged, there are some locals who worked, some still work for Safari Companies, with vast experience in running a Safari and they comprehend fully well the dynamics of the wild, sometimes even more than the owners of Safari Companies.

However, he posited that there is a world of difference between running a Safari on the hand, and managing a Safari Company on the other, adding that the latter involves sitting in the company’s Board of Directors where ‘life and death’ decisions are made on the ‘substance’ that make the business thrive.

For instance, it is only at the level Board of Directorship that critical information depicting the state of the markets, laying out international marketing strategy and implementation of Company sales and pricing strategies, is exchanged and reviewed.
Therefore, in addition to these factors, the sensitivity of the tourism markets dictate that they show a degree of credibility to win their confidence, and this depends largely on the company or management’s connectedness to the outside world, where they originate.
Myra Sekgororoane, Chief Executive Officer of Botswana Tourism Board (BTB), held a divergent position.
She said, “I beg to differ slightly. Look, it depends from what angle you are facing it.”

“If what you mean is that, since most of the people employed by safari Companies are generally, either illiterate or semi-illiterate, and that basing on their academic level may not make good managers, then that is indisputable,” submitted Sekgororoane.
But in terms of market connections and experience, certainly you always have to start somewhere, and until one becomes assertive and exposed enough to navigate the waves of the industry the challenges are a natural part of the terrain.

To this end, the BTB chief gave examples of some names including foreigners who she helped nurture in the industry, adding that the key thing is to promote emerging entrepreneurs so that they ultimately get there
The duo’s altercation followed presentation by the Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism (MEWT), Kitso Mokaila, at a recent Tourism Pitso, where he lamented the apparently stagnant position of local communities despite the fact that they host vast tourism resources, with the resultant decision to immediately halt ongoing discussions with industry.
Mokaila has said, “Eighteen years down the line, our communities do not show any visual benefits or elevation, and in a lot of cases, poverty still prevails…a sad situation indeed if you look at the proceeds from hunting quotas my ministry has annually extended over the years,”
It was in this context that, “the so called joint venture partners” were particularly singled out as culprits who contributed to the situation, and that they have not performed as expected of foreign investor partners, to impact meaningful skills to local populations.

Moreover Mokaila queried that there seemed to be no patriotic drive on the part of these ventures, for tangible projects to benefit the communities in which they operate, from their financial proceeds, particularly the hunting sector.

As if to address the concern, the Minister pointed out that like any sovereign state, Botswana has a right to review any of its policies at any time for the benefit of its people, global competitiveness and in line with the country’s decided strategies to take the nation to another level.
Thus after protracted negotiations with the Tourism industry, primarily the Hunters Sector, on the admissibility of operating within certain specified areas, and the stipulated radius from most of the Parks and Game Reserves, it was announced that, “we cannot dialogue forever—”.

“We have therefore found it prudent that prime sites for non-consumptive or photographic land use as it is commonly called, be reserved for the sole purpose of non-consumptive tourism,” stated Mokaila.

For that reason, Government will continue to take decisions whether a concession is to be designated consumptive or non-consumptive, irrespective of the otherwise existing 25 km restriction provision, which is only a compromise guideline.

Yet, even before going into the merits of reallocation of sites, and whether it adds value to the overall spin offs from the industry as a whole on the citizen population, it has been argued that, the bottom line lies in whether tourism will eternally remain the domain of foreign investors.

According to Baartman, by pairing up with already established Safari Companies local tourism investors could benefit from the advantage these have in terms of exposure investment decision making processes, since they will be shareholders with due privilege to confidential business information and international connection.

He said his company (Karibu) and a number of others that he was reluctant to mention by name would be willing to offer shares as a way of extending experience to new equity based companies funded by the Tourism Development Fund.

Besides, there is another theory that very few citizens are keen on the Safari business, because they are not passionate enough about staying in the bush and also because they do not want to leave their families for too long.
“I think the suggestion that attachment to the family may be a major factor in deciding to invest in the ‘wild’ business, would be an interesting one to examine,” said Sekgororoane.

She, however, made reference to the fact that it is normal practice in this industry, and also something “we pay special attention to,” that only a given number of tourists are allowed to stay or visit tourist facilities for ecological considerations.

By the same token, employees are not allowed to stay with their families at such places.

As such, unlike most other business, for one to get funding for a newly formed business, it would only be natural that they have to personally show commitment to the project mostly by managing it and assurance to the financiers that they would be able to repay the money that they will be able to repay back the money.

Nkgopoleng Kolagano (from Ramotswa), an Artistic and Marketing Director of Lebang Setso, suppliers of traditional Setswana arts and crafts, who had paraded his works at the Tourism Pitso, pointed out in his intervention in the debate, that the idea of citizen empowerment irrespective of the chosen business, seems to refer only to those locals who already have the financial muscle to assure their success.

“Given the prohibitive cost of coming up with a business proposal, regardless of the potential one already displays and despite the fact that it may not be guaranteed to succeed, certainly no matter how hard one wishes to participate in the industry that remains a uphill battle.”

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