“Madam Chairperson, government continues to promote citizen participation in the tourism industry, by introducing products that they can partake in,” the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, said in parliament.
As at January 2018 a total of licensed tourism operations stood at 1 678 with 1 177 being citizen-owned, 256 joint ventures and 254 non-citizen owned according to Tshekedi.
Useful as they are, these figures are misleading for what they don’t reveal. The most lucrative tourist asset in Botswana is the Okavango Delta which is almost wholly owned by non-citizens. With as many short-stay guests as pass through its gates a day, a citizen-owned lodge makes good money but comes nowhere near the amount of money that a luxury tourist operation in the Delta makes from a single guest. More often than not, Delta guests are Hollywood A-listers and European royalty. Famed United States TV host, Oprah Winfrey, has been spotted at the Maun International Airport returning from the Delta; Prince Harry of England is a regular basis; and former Spanish king, Juan Carlos, broke his leg there while hunting lions.
Some people would like the government to progress from talking about “citizen participation” to “citizen stake” in the tourism industry in part because the state of affairs is economically ruinous. While the structural leakage figures that have been quoted don’t match, there is consensus that a lot of money from Botswana’s tourism ends up in foreign lands. Standing in for Khama in 2016, the Minister of Land Management, Water and Sanitation Services, Prince Maele, told parliament that when a holiday is booked through foreign operators or agents, about 30 to 40 per cent of revenue remains in the source countries as fees for wholesalers/tour operators/travel agents/travel insurance and long haul flights while the remaining 60 to 70 per cent of revenue is remitted to Botswana. On the other hand, the African Natural Resources Centre says that leakages of foreign revenues from tourism amount to over 70 percent. The latter confirms the findings of a Botswana Institute of Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA) study on tourism leakages. BIDPA said that while foreign earnings from tourism were “substantial”, the leakages were also very high.
“Citizen” is a term that some people – even within the ruling party itself, have misgivings about. While a Member of Parliament for Shoshong, Duke Lefhoko, told Sunday Standard that citizen economic empowerment should specifically target indigenous Batswana because of a history of systematic disempowerment. An academic paper by a University of Botswana lecturer, Professor Monageng Mogakalwe, shows how the colonial British authority empowered whites and Asians (in that order) while systematically disempowering indigenous Batswana.
Breaking into the lucrative Delta tourism has its challenges, one being a controversial policy that appears to have been designed with nefarious intent. Delta concessions are parceled out through a lease system that makes it extremely difficult for indigenous Batswana 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, indigenous Batswana will find it extremely difficult to gain access to the country’s most lucrative tourist asset.