The World Bank Group has added its voice to the growing chorus against plans by the Environment and Tourism ministry to open up more than 24 hectares of land at the Chobe River front for eight new lodges.
The decision by the Ministry to invite 100% citizen owned businesses and consortia to submit expressions of interest for eight new tourism sites along the Chobe River front is already facing resistance and criticism from local ecologists and some residents of Chobe region.
In a new report titled: “A Diamond in the Rough: Toward a New Strategy for Diversification and Private Sector Growth,” the Bank states that despite the introduction of a de congestion strategy by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, specific areas such as the Chobe riverfront section and some areas of Moremi and Makgadikgadi face major logistical pressures during specific months and times of day.
“This may be exacerbated by new plans to allow the building of eight new hotels/lodges along the Chobe waterfront, inside the protected area,” the report says.
According to the report, the rapid increase in day visitors places pressure on limited existing road infrastructure and park facilities near Chobe National Park (particularly in Kasane and Maun).
Earlier this year, a group identifying itself as the “Concerned Stakeholders Chobe District” wrote to the Ministry, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife as well as other authorities objecting to the planned construction of lodges on the river front.
The Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana (HATAB) and some youth also pushed back against the plans.
Citing what it calls “over tourism, the World Bank report says even before the Covid-19 pandemic, early signs of “over-tourism” were visible. It says Botswana’s tourism sector is highly concentrated, both geographically and by supply of firms and products.
“Although partly the result of market forces responding to Botswana’s comparative advantage (concentrations of world-class wildlife in unique natural surroundings), the lack of product and geographical depth poses resilience, inclusion, and competitiveness risks to the sector,” the report warns. These risks, the report says, are already being felt in several ways, including unsustainable pressure on sensitive ecosystems as they gain popularity through increased visitor volumes.
“The Chobe and Moremi parks remain the principal tourism attractions, together accounting for more than 90 percent of the primary leisure market segments,” says the report.
It notes that these markets are small, niche, and well established but they are geographically restricted and based on wildlife resources that are found in a limited geographic range. It adds that few structured “site” attractions exist outside of this packaged wildlife lodge and camp offering, and new sites have been piloted in a supply driven manner, which has led to a lack of uptake. Botswana’s tourism sector has traditionally been tightly regulated, which has limited product diversity.
The Bank also notes that concession arrangements dictate the permitted activities within a certain area, such as non-motorized water-based activities (mokoro and boats), walks (drives only allowed for transfers), and timing of activities (restricted to daylight hours). Similarly, the report says, new areas—particularly heritage sites—have been regulated for preservation rather than conservation, albeit a policy that is slowly changing.
“These regulations stifle opportunities for the development of non-traditional products such as sports, soft adventure experiences, nighttime experiences, and hot-air ballooning, among others,” says the report.
On a related issue, the report says climate change and environmental degradation pose existential threats to the sector and its competitiveness.
“Climate change is accelerating desertification, which is putting pressure on key wildlife habitats, particularly through water scarcity,” the report says. It says climate change and water scarcity, along with their geopolitical implications in upstream Angola, may threaten the competitiveness of Botswana’s wildlife safari offering, which is dependent on ample water inflow into the Okavango Delta.
“Early indications are that changes in water levels, flow, and seasonality are already affecting biodiversity, as well as the spread and migration patterns of iconic wildlife species across the delta and Chobe,” the report says. The report says Botswana’s growing elephant population has also led to increased instances of damaged crops and infrastructure (leading to conflict with local communities) as well as natural resource degradation through reduced tree cover that is used by other wildlife for shelter and food.