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An epidemic of ignorance

Elsewhere in this edition, we detail how events 5,300km north of our borders, are dampening revenues in the tourism heartland of North West Botswana.

Tour operators in the World Heritage Site, the Okavango Delta, are reporting that their bookings for next year have dropped by between 30 and 50 percent.

The peak tourism period, between May and September, was a damp squib for many operators who witnessed a downturn in arrivals. The reason? Fears over the Ebola outbreak in West Africa!  Operators say because of tourists’ ignorance, fears stoked by wild media reports in the West and misguided booking agents, Africa is again being viewed as one country.  The operators have repeatedly pointed out that Botswana is far removed from the outbreak and that it was among the first countries to introduce Ebola restrictions.  They have also highlighted the country’s comparatively robust health care system and its unsurpassed adherence to World Health Organisation’s guidelines.

“The world at large does not have a good understanding of African geography, the size and extent of the continent, and the degree of sophistication of many of our governments and their health ministries,” says Wilderness Safaris’ managing director, Grant Woodrow.

It is convenient and easy to blame the troubles tourism finds itself in, on the ignorance or preconceptions of tourists from the West. After all, it is their ‘Africa is a country’ thinking that now has us in a situation where we are lumped together with the nations battling Ebola.

However, at the heart of our troubles is our failure to adequately brand ourselves. From the very start, the national brand campaign carried the noble objective of allowing Botswana to distinguish itself from other competing destination markets.

In fact, at the unveiling of the national brand in April 2010, former BEDIA CEO, Jacob Nkate, uttered

words which when viewed in light of the current Ebola challenges, could be considered prophetic. “In Africa, we are lumped together as a useless lot and I believe we have to brand ourselves and stand out,” he said.  While millions have been spent in the brand campaign – from ideological and design consultancies to the global roll-out – it is unclear what success has been achieved.

More worrying is the apparent lack of satisfactory evaluation and monitoring structures or systems to assess the brand’s success. At present, it appears that taxpayers’ funds are being poured into a branding exercise whose results are unclear.  The same criticism was made of the Vision 2016 programme and proponents established a robust monitoring and evaluation function tasked with regularly updating taxpayers on progress.

Had Ebola not affected the tourism heartland, questions on the efficacy of the brand campaign may never have been asked, a situation that those tasked with receiving these funds would likely prefer to prevail. 

Our new parliamentarians should swiftly summon the brand leaders for a blow-by-blow breakdown of exactly how they are using their diminishing national cake to counter exactly the sort of troubles Ebola is now presenting us with.

                                                         Today’s thought

           “The keys to brand success are self-definition, transparency, authenticity and accountability.”

                                                        - Simon Mainwaring





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