Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Should Botswana repackage its tourism sector?

The potential of the Okavango Delta in terms of unlocking its full value, particularly as the country’s most important tourist destination, is thwarted by what appears to be clear absence of the use of culture as a selling point to tourists. While the Okavango Delta has attracted many tourists this has largely been due to its unique demography with travelers rarely exposed to its human side as is generally depicted by people and their heritage.

Thousands of kilometers away from Botswana in China is a tourist destination called Sanya city which in the same way as the Okavango Delta boasts of natural resources that likewise attract tourists. A recent visit to Sanya city by this publication’s journalist revealed areas of comparison between China and Botswana’s tourism industries. The tourism industry, as it is the experience of many economies in the world, contributes significantly to their growth and development. This is particularly true for Botswana given that the sector comes second after diamonds in terms of generating revenue for the country.    

Sanya city is set by the coastline that stretches across 258 kilometers in a lush natural environment with blue skies and the Okavango Delta offers a picturesque of palm and papyrus fringed waterways, resplendent with lush vegetation and teeming with wildlife. This is the closest similarity the two destinations share. Whereas the two attractions are vastly varied in their demography and as such a comparison may seem unjustified, the models of tourism used to lure in tourists warrant assessment on the basis that both use their natural resources to generate revenue from them. The impetus of the analysis is to determine whether the model used by Botswana of low volume, high value tourism remains the best model especially within an industry that is rapidly growing and changing. The reason for the country’s tourism model is largely hinged on environmental preservation and conservation. The model is such that it charges premium prices and only tourists willing and able to pay such high rates are mostly the ones that visit. In other words tourism in Botswana is largely skewed towards the high end market and resultantly restricts the volume of tourists visiting the country’s popular sites. The economics behind this model is that even though fewer tourists visit the sites the premium prices they pay makes up for the low volume. Sanya city, like the Okavango Delta, places great importance on environmental protection but uses a different model to that of Botswana. The city meets the needs of different kinds of tourists with varying budgets and proves successful in having found a balance between environmental protection and tourists’ volume. The official statistics indicate that more than 100 000 people book accommodation every day and in 2017 the city raked in billions from overnight stays and inbound tourists. The success of Sanya city in maintaining the conflict between the environment and tourists’ volume was among other things attributed to the establishment of man-made resources which are used to complement the natural resources as tourism product offerings. Another strategy used is the marketing and promotion of neighboring cities around Sanya as a way of encouraging tourists to visit its surroundings. The promotion of other cities ensures that visitors are spread evenly rather than concentrated in a single area. An example of this model is the Binglanggu Hainan Li and Miao Cultural Heritage Park situated about 28 kilometers from Sanya city centre in the Ganzaling nature conservation area. The Park, established in 1998, embodies from its varied ethnic facets the human side of the minority village dwellers. It sews the people’s folkloric customs, lifestyle, food, livelihood into a hub in which visitors immerse and traverse through. The General Manager of the Park, Ji Gui, told this publication that in a year 1.3 million tourists visit it. The park offers another capturing point for visitors away from Sanya city’s coastline.                      

It is worth mentioning that the Okavango Delta has produced positive effects as a tourist destination but this has been to a varying degree. The Delta is yet to successfully weave together an experience that can make visitors appreciate both its natural landscape and the culture of people surrounding it. It could be suggested that the absence of the human side to the Delta impedes it from unlocking its real value. Case in point, as was found by Joseph Mbaiwa in his 2002 research work titled ‘Enclave tourism and its socio-economic impacts in the Okavango Delta, Botswana’: “The nature of tourists arrivals and departure from Maun Airport reduces the interaction with the local people and eliminates chances of tourists spending money in Maun and other villages in the Okavango Delta region. The lack of interaction of tourists with local people presumably contributes to the poorly developed levels of cultural tourism and weak link ages of tourism with other sectors of the economy.” Mbaiwa also identified that photographic tourism draws a greater number of visitors to the Delta. This suggests the lack of diversified tourism products offering in the area. Additionally, of the 1.3 million tourists that visit the Binglanggu Hainan Li and Miao Cultural Heritage Park in China annually an estimated 50 000 of them are from outside China. The Park’s is mainly driven by domestic tourism. The opposite exists for the Okavango Delta, Mbaiwa pointed out that due to exorbitant prices of tourism facilities Batswana “do not use resources found in the Okavango Delta in large numbers.” He further found that “on average about 50 000 tourists visited the Okavango Delta annually.” This number has the potential to increase if the interaction between tourists and local people is established. In that way culture, like in Binglanggu Hainan Li and Miao Cultural Heritage Park, can be made part of the promotion and marketing that attracts visitors to Botswana’s tourist destinations such as the Okavango Delta.

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