Monday, June 1, 2020

HATAB’s catalogue of issues speaks to the “absence” of locals in the tourism sector

BY VICTOR BAATWENG

The annual conference of the Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana (HATAB) took place in the tourism town of Kasane just about two weeks ago.

For the sake of those who might not be familiar with it, the objective of the conference is to engage different stakeholders to discuss pertinent issues in the tourism sector and come up with resolutions and timelines. The conference amongst others targets the government as the major stakeholder – in policy and regulatory framework.

We ought to say that for a cross-cutting sector like tourism, it is indeed vital to constantly engage different stakeholders to discuss available opportunities and challenges that hinder progress, performance, and its growth. We therefore salute HATAB for constantly ensuring that gatherings like this take place year after another.

This year’s edition of the conference, just like others, came at a time when the tourism industry is facing quite a number of frustrations.

We chose to term such frustrations as ‘catalogue of issues’. This catalogue of issues entails quite a number of business impediments amongst others – operating under an outdated policy ÔÇô as old as a 29 year old. The sector’s master plan was also last reviewed some 19 years ago.

Amongst other things, the former chairman of HATAB Dr Thapelo Matsheka has in the past raised concerns about the level of secrecy in the sector.

At the time, Matsheka warned that if left unattended the issue of high unpredictability and lack of transparency will dent investor confidence. To demonstrate his case, Matsheka cited establishment of a land bank in the tourism sector as an example, for which Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO) was tasked in 2008.

It is pleasing to note that the government has since taken a decision to reverse the land bank strategy which almost turned BTO into a mini-landlord. It is frustrating though, that to date, not much information has been shared with the citizens of this country in relation to “land bank”. We do not know why it was introduced and the benefits that came with it, if any. Even on its indirect admission of the wrong-turn they made on land bank, it is only fair that the government also go as far as telling Batswana what really transpired during the time the land bank policy was in place. It is called transparency and accountability.

Now this land bank issue, amongst others, explains why we have always held the view that our country’s tourism potential is undervalued. The outdated policy and master plan are complementing other factors such as high prices, under-investments as well as little effort that is made to stimulate domestic tourism.

In this sector, just like others, we tend to have chosen to remain a ‘talk more’, ‘act less’ nation. This is so because apart from operating with old fashioned documents, in most cases half of recommendations made at this scheduled conferences are hardly implemented thus hindering the potential growth.

One of the notably things in this sector is that whilst the Botswana Tourism Organisation is doing a good job of marketing Botswana’s tourism services in the global media, three other areas require urgent attention. One is the diversification of the product’s emphasis on wildlife; culture, for instance, is an option. The second is enhancing the sector’s capacity to provide services. The third is reforming the management of the tourism sector to ensure that a greater proportion of the tourism revenue is retained in the country.

Our old song, ‘the foreign domination and ownership of tourism facilities which lead to the repatriation of tourism revenue, domination of management positions by expatriates, lower salaries for citizen workers, and a general failure by tourism to significantly contribute to rural poverty alleviation’ should come to an end. Even the tourism minister ÔÇô Kitso Mokaila did say so in his official speech at the HATAB conference last week.

One needs to add that in order to address problems of enclave tourism development and promote more inclusive and beneficial tourism development in areas such as Chobe, Ngamiland and Okavango, there is need to adopt policies and strategies that will ensure that substantial amounts of tourism revenue are retained in such areas and by extension in Botswana.

It is quite clear that a key limitation to the future growth of Botswana’s tourism industry is also the under developed transport network. At present, both inbound and outbound travel is primarily from and to Botswana’s nearby neighbours including regional powerhouse South Africa and Namibia. Travel between these countries is primarily by road, where crumbling infrastructure means transit times are extended and the safety record is poor.

With all these in mind, it is our plea to HATAB to continue pushing for some of these urgent matters so as to ensure that Botswana tourism receives the attention of government and other stakeholders that it needs.

Although it remains slow to act on a number of urgent matters, through the help of HATAB we believe that the government will finally come to the party and celebrate the fact that the tourism as a sector has immense potential for wealth creation for the native Batswana and economic growth. When all have been said and done, the #Bottom-line remains: In order to achieve long term sustainability, the tourism sector should be aligned to National Economic Strategies and also national aspirations for more local value addition and more visible citizen participation.

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