Thoughts On Re-Opening Leisure Travel

It is well documented that the coronavirus (COVID-19) is hurting the country’s key revenue earners namely mining, SACU’s customs and excise duties and tourism.

These key revenue lines have been suffering due to closed borders since March with tourism on its deathbed. It is encouraging on the mining side that diamond sales have improved since August with De Beers reporting that demand has risen. The same cannot be said for tourism as border exits and entries remain restricted to essential travel. This has hurt the Botswana travel market. Since the start of October, South Africa and Namibia started receiving moneyed tourists from select markets around the world, while here, local authorities have remained mum on the next step. No one can deny the fact that COVID-19 still remains one of the biggest health challenges in the country. At the same time, no one can dispute the fact that health authorities have found ways of monitoring and alleviating the disease better, hence the reluctance to impose lockdowns even when numbers of detected cases are rising.

Although there are interventions in place to minimise job losses during the health crisis, we believe the time has come for stakeholders to start conversations on the way forward for the tourism industry. Health authorities and players in both public and private sector should initiate discussions of when and how the restart will take place. Botswana cannot be closed forever for leisure travellers when competitors like Namibia and South Africa with high coronavirus cases have partially opened. Besides, Botswana has the best ammunition to fight imported spread of the virus because it puts visitors on two-week mandatory quarantines before they can move freely within the country. The industry can also mitigate the risks of spreading the virus as it has its unique ways of running things. For example, employees who work in lodges located in the tourism hotspots in the North can stay for three months in the bush hence reducing interaction with the general population. We think slowly the country should open for leisure travellers as jobs and investors’ futures are at stake if it remains closed. It is projected that the industry stands to lose billions of pula if it stays closed and like the rest of Africa, it could take years to recover. The model of ‘high value, low volume’ also makes it difficult for the industry to recover, although ironically, it encourages greater distancing and higher COVID-19 protocols.  Actually the future is bleak with nature tourism, which is mainly the preserve of rich North American and European pensioners who are mostly affected by the pandemic. Reopening earlier will also allow tour operators to scratch their heads in time to cultivate other markets that can sustain the industry in case it receives another setback like COVID-19.

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