To those who understand how Botswana’s tourist industry works, Minister Tshekedi Khama’s answer to MP Billy Buti’s parliamentary question about citizen access to prime land would have appeared to be shot through with sophistry.
The Francistown East MP raised concern about Batswana still finding it difficult to secure prime land for tourism business and he wanted to know what the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism was doing to open opportunities for Batswana in this sector.
In response, Khama said cited a number of initiatives that the government is taking “to increase tourism growth and citizen participation particularly with respect to access to land.” The government plans to issue expressions of interest for tourism development by communities in 100 monuments and heritage sites across the country; is making available at least 10 campsites for development of tourism facilities in the wildlife management areas with preference for Batswana; is to identify three to five sites for tourism development within the Okavango Delta and on which the Botswana Tourism Organisation will partner with Batswana; and tourism potential areas such as Makgadikgadi Pans, Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park have been earmarked for citizens.
It may not be immediately apparent but what that answer says is that Batswana’s access to the most prime tourist land in the country ÔÇô the Okavango Delta ÔÇô will remain low. The minister’s choice to extend his focus to non-prime land obscures this fact. The Delta is where the real tourism money is because half of Hollywood and international royalty holidays there. Government generally avoids casting issues in racial terms but that still doesn’t hide the fact that virtually all of the Delta is in white, mostly expatriate hands. Those less reticent, like members of the opposition parties, have bluntly pronounced this fact.
However, there is very little the government can do about this situation – as indeed demonstrated by the fact the “three to five sites” in the Delta that the minister speaks of. Delta assets are parceled out through a lease system that makes it extremely difficult for citizens to get a stake in the lucrative high-value tourism market. The lease agreement between the Tawana Land Board and 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 an extended period of time. As long as this system remains in place, citizens will find it extremely difficult to gain access to the country’s most lucrative tourist asset.
While advocating for greater citizen stake in high-value tourism is indeed a good thing, there is one issue that MPs generally avoid because there is no way they cannot know about it. Even as citizens clamour for a spot in prime tourist land, it is a well-known fact that customer service standards at most citizen-owned hospitality establishments are deplorably low. This raises both the legitimate question and fear of what the adverse effects of mass citizen entry into the Delta market would be on a tourist asset whose establishments offer consistently and uniformly high service standards.