The first thing that comes to mind when the Okavango Delta is mentioned, varies depending on who you ask.
According to the people of the Delta, the mention would trigger thoughts of the river. To them the Okavango Delta is a river that is the source of their lives. The water they drink, where they fish twini and mpa-khibidu (cat fish and tilapia), harvest letaka to build their shelter, and the bush where their grandparents taught them to hunt wild animals for food and survival. These are the people who still travel free across the Delta on their mekoro.
To many Batswana elsewhere in the country, the Okavango Delta conjures images of luxurious camps, photographed at twilight in the middle of the bush, showing the splendour and grandeur of what can be done when money is not a problem. The top end lodges with huge white-sheet beds, bathrooms with a view, free imported beverages, free cigars and personalised service. Places that boast of filthy rich clients, built for kings and queens of the world to come and taste the natural environment away from flashlights and hooters. To many Batswana, this is the world they can only dream to be at in their next life because it is too expensive. These are the same people who believe mokoro is a very dangerous mode of transport.
A mention of the Okavango Delta to many international tourists brings to mind thoughts of the Biblical Garden of Eden, the wild perfection of an untouched wilderness that is pristine. A wilderness that is unmatched, a glimpse to a world before humans built big concrete cities. These are people who are happy to pay to hear the roar of the lion, the dawn chorus, to watch a formation of the flock of cranes flying past silhouetted against the setting sun, the gentle jumbos expertly shaking the Camelthorn tree to drop the pockets and feed before moving on to another tree. These are the people that believe mokoro is an adventurous vessel and pay lots of money to ride on it.
Long ago intrepid travellers and shrewd entrepreneurs created a simple tourism product inside that untamed wilderness. They packaged a natural environment - the wildlife, scenic sunrise and sunset, and a marvellous landscape – into a product that is appealing to the rich and famous and also preserves the environment. The country endeavoured to keep the Okavango wilderness as pristine as possible and they prescribed for low tourist volumes.
Temporary exclusive lodges with only a dozen or less bed capacity were permitted to operate in a given concession. The simple economics of demand and supply meant that prices for these lodges went sky high. It is a lucrative business that attracts clients who do not have a problem with the price, as long as the product is good.
As the demand for the Okavango Delta surged, big players from around the world with deep pockets showed interest. The land was held by communities led by old folks some of whom still cannot comprehend why anyone would want to pay to see a wild animal in a bush without even killing it. And that is how some communities gave away their land. They did not see the potential in the wilderness.
But all was not lost, some communities, like Okavango Community Trust (OCT) at Seronga entered into lucrative partnerships with investors. They have sublet their concessions to foreign investors who understand the potential of the land. These investors are the ones who have built these temporary luxurious camps that are the envy of many. These are the lodges that some Batswana think of when the Okavango Delta is mentioned.
So since the clientele and investors on these lodges are mostly white foreigners, some people believe Batswana do not benefit in the tourism business.
The complexity of the business deepens where the clients do not pay at the reception in the bush, but use technology from the comfort of their homes away from Botswana. So many are unaware that Batswana own the land and are a crucial part of the supply chain in the tourism sector.
But this is 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic has stopped international travel so ‘makgoa’ (white people) a name for tourists in the Okavango Delta, cannot come to the Delta.
The unfortunate situation has not really reached crisis stage yet, but experts believe it is about to get worse. Out of this trouble, however, there is an opportunity to change the travel mindset of many on wildlife tourism.
The challenge is that wildlife tourism is not a novelty amongst Batswana. Due to our rural upbringing – of weekend ko masimo, moraka, or dikhwaere ko gae - we are just urban villagers already familiar with the wildlife and nature.
This is an observation that was noted by researchers, Phemelo Morupisi and Lelokwane Mokgalo in their article titled ‘Domestic Tourism Challenges in Botswana: A Stakeholders’ Perspective’, published in the Cogent Social Sciences (2017).
“Respondents believe that nature-based tourism dominated by wildlife and the wilderness does not appeal to most prospective travellers simply because they seek novelty. This and the high prices for services in the industry that is predominantly international-focused does not help the situation and therefore poses a barrier to domestic tourism growth,” noted the report.
Morupisi and Mokgalo found that the predominant single wildlife product, high prices of services in the tourism industry, lack of planning for leisure travel and a culture of low leisure travel are the most challenging factors to growth of domestic tourism in Botswana.
“Therefore to address these, diversification into different products, education, awareness campaigns and concessionary rates for residents during off-peak are some of the strategies that could help improve domestic travel within the country and help local authorities and businesses tap into this extensive market,” concluded the report.
Education and travel awareness campaigns will educate Batswana that the Okavango Delta is not fenced and it is not a lodge. We will learn that international tourists are paying for a product that us as Batswana take for granted, like a sunset, a sight of a yellow-billed hornbill (korwe), a spotted hyena (phiri) and the dawn chorus.
And since we are all trapped inside our country, this is the time to relearn the novelty of our flora and fauna.