Tuesday, October 20, 2020

UB expert sees high-end tourists returning but …

The good news in Professor Joseph Mbaiwa’s analysis is that Botswana’s tourism will get back on track. The bad news is that such rebounding will not happen fast enough, especially for hospitality entrepreneurs and workers.“Although Botswana may open her borders by September or so, it will take time for the high-end tourists to visit the Okavango Delta or Chobe regions – maybe a year or so,” says Mbaiwa who is the Director of the University of Botswana’s Okavango Research Institute in Maun.“A year or so” will come as extremely bad news not just for a country whose second highest forex earner is tourism but also for all who are in the tourism business, either as entrepreneurs or as workers. Mbaiwa’s explanation for this lag is that the high-end tourists visiting Botswana are old rich people who live in developed countries. 

“Most tourists would like to travel when their health situation is guaranteed,” he says. “I am therefore not sure whether within a year or so there will be a vaccine for COVID-19. If the vaccine is out there, available and affordable, that’s when we can start to see tourists visiting Botswana.”Before the vaccine comes along, tourists would be hesitant to visit because, on account of their age, they want to be absolutely certain “that they will be secure health-wise” if they travel to Africa in general and Botswana in particular.“Most of them trust health facilities in South Africa but you are aware that South Africa is currently having challenges in controlling COVID-19,” says Mbaiwa, adding that numbers of infected people in that country South Africa are going up every day.This class of tourists would also want cast-iron guarantees that Air Botswana, Air Link (or any other carriers they may use to fly into Botswana for that matter) will protect their health.

“I am sure if the vaccine and health issues are addressed, they will start travelling.” Mbaiwa says.The COVID-19 pandemic has upended a way of life that nations have become accustomed to for well over a century and in some quarters, has excited quirky quick and quack fixes of all kinds. From the Czech Republic, a scholar at the Prague Business School called Wadim Strielkowski has proposed that people who have recovered from COVID-19 can become a key element for the post-virus recovery strategies for tourism. His rationale is as follows: people who recover from the disease develop antibodies that can protect them from getting infected again and since they can travel freely without spreading the disease, airlines, hotels and restaurants should target them by offering discounts and special offers.First decrying “fake science” that has suffused the public media, Mbaiwa cautions that Botswana should be careful to not adopt any speculative approaches without the approval of world health bodies such as WHO.

“In the event that WHO validates Wadim Strielkowski, then it will be a great marketing strategy to focus on those. However, I doubt whether WHO will validate and approve this proposal. WHO is currently looking at the development of a vaccine to manage COVID-19,” he says.Mbaiwa’s own proposal is one that he has long officialised through publications and presentations – that Botswana should promote domestic tourism and community-based tourism approaches.“If domestic tourism had been developed in Botswana, Batswana could have started travelling even today, visiting the tourist attractions in the country. Apart from the fact that Botswana’s Tourism Policy of 1990 and the Botswana Tourism Master Plan of 2000 are outdated and no longer serve the current demands and needs of the tourism industry in Botswana, tourism strategies and approaches in Botswana currently focus on wildlife-based tourism. The Tourism Master Plan proposed diversification of the industry to other tourism products in the country but it largely remains unimplemented,” says Mbaiwa adding that other forms of tourism such as cultural and sport tourism which would otherwise promote domestic tourism, are only given lip service.

“The government of Botswana offers limited support to domestic tourism because domestic and regional tourists have low-spending power compared with tourists from developed countries.”He adds that as a result, Botswana is generally focusing on receiving wealthy foreign visitors from developed countries and actively neglecting the potential of mass tourism involving domestic and regional tourists. From the vantage point he occupies as both a tourism studies scholar and resident of a tourism hot spot, Mbaiwa adjudges that this approach imperils the country’s economic fortunes when global pandemics such as COVID-19 strike.“I thought the SARS virus in Asia and September 11 [terrorist attacks] in the United States taught us a lesson to develop strategies that would make our tourism industry survive when such a pandemic strikes, but I was wrong. There was no strategy and when COVID-19 hit Botswana, we were proved to be unprepared and had no strategy to mitigate the negative effects.”COVID-19 presents an altogether different challenge, one that the Alliance for Progressives president, Ndaba Gaolathe, has stated would be the worst of all the economic challenges that Botswana has faced in its existence as an independent nation.

Common sense says that a business-as-usual approach would be detrimental to a country which, for decades, has lost a lot of money due to revenue leakages from the tourism industry. The devastation that COVID-19 will wreak on the national economy poses an entirely new fiscal challenge, one that, to the extent possible, should necessarily force the country to seal all revenue leakages.Mbaiwa says that if the government of President Mokgweetsi Masisi keeps its promise to ensure citizen participation in the lucrative tourism industry, a huge chunk of the revenue will remain in Botswana and leakages reduced. “However, if the current status quo remains – which I do not support – government should devise a strategy that will ensure that revenue leakages are reduced.

This may include using the number of beds sold to calculate the profit generated by these companies and what is due to Botswana.”His description of the extent of the problem (big safari companies in the Okavango Delta evading tax, repatriation of profits and the contracting of marketing services to foreign agents and companies) shows how dire the situation is at a time that the national economy is projected to contract by historic proportions. If the leakage continues, hundreds of millions (possibly billions) of pula will continue to leak away and not circulate in the national economy.“I know the argument by some of my colleagues is that the majority of tourism companies are citizen-owned companies,” Mbaiwa says.Two other people who are not his colleagues have made that same argument: a former president and his younger brother.

Speaking at a 2014 political rally to launch the candidacy of Reverend Rupert Hambira for the Gaborone Central parliamentary seat, then President Ian Khama said that that contrary to the belief that tourism was dominated by whites, the reality was that at a participation rate of 65 percent, Batswana (which in this context meant blacks) were actually the dominant group. Four years later, then Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, told parliament that 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. Useful though they were, these figures were misleading for what they didn’t reveal: that it is non-citizens who make the most money from lucrative tourism.

Mbaiwa expresses similar sentiments: “How many citizen-owned companies have concessions in the heart of the Okavango Delta or the Chobe? It’s time citizen companies own the prime tourism concessions and have tourism money circulating within the country, creating opportunities for citizens of Botswana. Government should adopt a tourism citizen empowerment strategy that will ensure prime tourism areas and prime tourism opportunities are owned and controlled by citizen companies and the people of Botswana.”

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The Telegraph October 21

Digital edition of The Telegraph, October 21, 2020.