The Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana (HATAB) says while it 'wholeheartedly' supports citizen economic empowerment, the planned development of eight lodges on the Chobe River front in Kasane will increase congestion and environmental pollution in the prime area.
The 38-year-old industry body, which represents 50% of all licensed hospitality and tourism operators in the country, was this week making its first full remarks on a burning debate, which has raised hackles in Parliament.
The environment ministry and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks recently invited 100% citizen-owned companies and consortiums to submit expressions of interest for the development of eight lodges on the Chobe River front, which would cover more than 240,000sqm of land.
Environmentalists and other stakeholders have filed a formal opposition to the plans, saying the planned lodges would worsen the congestion of the Chobe National Park, threaten animal corridors and increase pollution in an area that is Kasane’s major tourism drawcard.
HATAB recently wrote to the environment minister, Philda Kereng on the matter and this week publicly expressed its concerns on the plans.
“Whilst the invitation for Expressions of Interest calls upon interested parties to provide 'information on' waste management, pollutants, deforestation, human-wildlife conflict and the like, the invitation sets no parameters or conditions for environmental management practices,” HATAB’s statement reads.
“Eight lodges in such close proximity will, it is suggested, have a substantial environmental impact, especially in relation to pollution caused by refuse and human waste.
“Additionally, the time allocated for the preparation and submission of the tenders is too short for the inclusion of all the necessary submissions such as the Environmental Impact Assessment as an example.”
The association said the Chobe National Park was already experiencing significant environmental pressure and congestion, adding that the gazetted management plans since the early 1990s had stipulated that no new lodges should be developed there.
“A broad-spectrum consultative process and a comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment must be undertaken prior to the allocation of any site for any proposed new development(s) in the Chobe National Park.
“We also note that there are potential areas of development in a managed way in other areas of the Chobe region that can be considered,” the association stated.
The question of whether the existing Chobe National Park management plan allows for new lodges became a bone of contention in Parliament recently with Maun West legislator, Dumelang Saleshando alleging that new developments were expressly prohibited by the old plans and the new update due to be launched by government.
According to Kereng, an updated management plan, which is due to be launched soon, actually allows for 11 lodges in the Park, but authorities had opted for eight, in light of the threat of congestion.
“The sites that could be built there are 11, but we are going for eight because we don’t want high traffic there,” she said in response to Saleshando recently.
“The limit on beds per lodge is also 75 to reduce the traffic in that area.
“There are technical inputs into the actions we do, as well as site visits to see about the congestion.
“We see that the lodges can be done with the distance between them.
“In addition, how many lodges are there already, if we talk about congestion?”
Kereng also brushed aside Saleshando’s suggestions that scientists involved with the updated management plan had opposed adding new lodges to the park and the riverfront.
“On the consultants, if you hire them, can they also object to what they have done?” Kereng asked.
“We are the custodians of all the documents that they have done and we contracted them.
“We have not received any objection from them.
“We updated the old management plan because as things develop and more expertise and ability become available, we are able to do these revisions.
“We can therefore say, now we can consider adding two or more sites so that government’s plans can be done and this is still with the technical input so that our decisions are based on science.”
Mmegi is informed that scientists involved in the updated management plan have asked that their names be removed as authors of the document, if any changes are made by the ministry to include the lodges. Highly placed sources said the original draft of the plan recommended that no new developments be allowed in the park and the riverfront, a finding accepted by the technical reference group involved in the management plan’s development.
Mmegi is informed that the planned launch of the management plan scheduled for March 29 was postponed indefinitely due to the differences between the consultants and the ministry.
“It would have been awkward because the scientists would either decline to attend or attend and have the ministry carry the risk that media and others could ask uncomfortable questions,” an insider told Mmegi.
“In fact, these management plans are traditionally not launched. They simply come into effect.
“A launch was planned this time perhaps because of the need to show that the lodges were included in the plan. However, the issues with the experts have made the launch a troubled affair.”
Mmegi is informed that as custodians of the management plan, the ministry and the department have the right to make changes to the final document before it comes into effect. Some of the considerations in making changes could be to provide for more citizen economic empowerment in prime tourism areas.
Presenting her ministry’s budget in Parliament recently, Kereng revealed that 41 tourism concessions are being set aside in Kasane and Kazungula strictly for citizen economic empowerment. It was, however, not immediately clear whether the Chobe River front leases are part of the 41 concessions.
Other plans include 100% citizen reservations for tourism activities at Shashe, Letsibogo and Thune dams as well as reservations for campsites.
“We want to increase the participation of Batswana in tourism, such as in Chobe National Park where we are opening concessions or space for them to get into,” she said.
“Similar plans will take place in the Okavango Delta, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and other national parks and we will be running these programmes at the same time to help increase citizen participation.”
Youths in Kasane, however, have said the conditions for the Chobe River front lodges appear targetted at well-established businesses, as they require bidders to have held and operated tourism businesses for the last two years.
“We view the requirement with suspicion that it serves to empower the already existing businesses that already have stakes in the tourism sector against start-ups that need such golden opportunities to enter the lucrative tourism market,” said Eco Tours director, Othusitse Ranko, in a complaint filed with the ministry.