Is Botswana ready for the backpackers?

Mokoro ride on Thamalakane River in Maun PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES
Mokoro ride on Thamalakane River in Maun PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES

Mmegi Staff Writer and proficient backpacker THALEFANG CHARLES responds to the news that Botswana tops the Lonely Planet List of ‘Best Countries To Visit’ in 2016 and posits that although the listing is a welcome feat it could present challenges for Botswana

Botswana has made it to the top spot on Lonely Planet’s Best Country To Visit in 2016 list.  The Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO) seems to be happy with the listing as evident from the press statement they issued on Wednesday after the list was published.

But what does it mean to be on the Lonely Planet list and what should Batswana expect?

To a backpacker who lives and has extensively travelled throughout Botswana it was a big surprise that Botswana could make it into the Lonely Planet list, let alone top of the list.

I was least expecting to find Botswana on top of the Lonely Planet ‘Best Country to Visit’ because for many years Botswana was not interested in budget travellers.

Make no mistake about it, Botswana has one of the best tourism products in the world and deserves to top many ‘must visit lists’.

Lonely Planet’s list is different because of what Lonely Planet is. For years budget travellers around, including yours truly, have been relying on Lonely Planet Guide Books to find affordable destinations with cheap activities.

Lonely Planet is the largest travel guidebook publisher in the world. For years they have been focusing on budget travel. They are part of a movement that inspired backpacking. As a matter of fact, around the world at every backpackers’ lodge you will find travellers glued to the Lonely Planet books (print & ebooks) planning their itineraries.

“Lonely Planet is driven by the philosophy defined in Across Asia on the Cheap (the founders’ first travel guidebook).

But Botswana has been off limits from budget travellers and even Lonely Planet knows this because this destination did not want cheap crowds flocking our pristine wilderness.

Lonely Planet editorial director, Tom Hall was quoted saying, “Botswana has remained off the radar for most people, who believe it’s too expensive, too difficult to get to, or doesn’t cater to families, but there are many options for all kinds of travelers year-round — self-guided tours, luxury camps, award-winning family safaris, community projects — and [there are] plans to start direct international flights in the next year”.

But Botswana for many years wanted it that way.  They deliberately chose to remain off the radar of ‘budget travellers’.

The government adopted a policy that used the ‘low volume, high value’ model that attracted mostly moneyed tourists.

Although the model attracted a lot of criticism, mostly locally because it left out most residents, it worked well for the travel agents and unspoilt ecosystem like the Okavango Delta and Chobe National Park.

Top luxurious safari resorts, many in the Okavango Delta, are raking in millions from top-end millionaires who frequent the Delta.  Because of its authentic safari experience and mostly its ‘exclusivity’, The Okavango Delta  attracts the royals, rich and famous.

It also attracts the older travellers who splash their pensions on the slow and serene Botswana experience without the crowds and vibey nightlife.

Botswana never wanted to be a ‘Viva Vang Vieng’.

Vang Vieng is described by GuardianUK newspaper as “the planet’s most improbable party town. A paradise where there are no rules”.  It is located deep in central Laos, one of southeast Asia’s poorest countries, the once-tranquil farming village has become a seething epicentre of backpackers behaving badly.

Botswana discourages backpackers’ lodges. For instance in the tourist town of Maun, there is only one famous backpackers lodge - the Oldbridge Backpackers.

This is what Botswana should know; when one of the world’s most anticipated travel guides lists you as ‘a must-visit destination’ then you should expect crowds of cheap travellers.

Lonely Planet might have finally figured out how to do Botswana on a cheap.  But is Botswana ready for the crowds?

Surely the country does not want the Viva Vang Vieng situations where in 2011 at least 27 travellers died and 12 the following year because of unruly behaviour. Scenes of drunken young backpackers partying on Thamalakane riverbanks under the sun and behaving badly should not happen here.

At the moment some countries, especially on the famous Banana Pan Cake Trail (around southeast Asia), that were considered big cheap travellers’ spots are trying to adopt Botswana’s model of ‘low volume, high income’ because of the disadvantages brought in by budget crowds.

Luckily Botswana’s listing comes at a time when Lonely Planet is preaching Responsible Travel to its million users.

This is very imperative to Botswana’s sensitive ecosystems, especially after the Okavango Delta was listed as the 1,000th World Heritage Site.

Both Tshekedi Khama and his predecessor at the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, Kitso Mokaila have complained about the congestion of safari vehicles at the Chobe National Park and called on measures to reduce the numbers.

This was in order to avoid the environment degradation that is currently being experienced in East Africa.

So the listing of Botswana as the ‘Top Country to Visit in 2016’ by the world’s biggest cheap travellers’ guide is welcome, but I posit that it would present challenges for conservation efforts.

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