One year later: Tourists still in COVID-19 jail

Sir Seretse Khama International Airport PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES
Sir Seretse Khama International Airport PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES


It was during the height of the first of wave of the Coronavirus global pandemic. The grim days, when COVID-19 wreaked havoc through some of the world best medical institutions, and left wealthy western nations helplessly counting bodies. It was the days when most people actually wanted to believe the then US President Donald Trump when he said, “It’s going to disappear. One day, like a miracle, it will disappear.”

It is now March 2021, and just recently someone said, “My passport probably thinks I am in jail”. And that sums up the current state of the travel and tourism industry. Tourists are still stuck in the COVID-19 lockdowns, curfews and travel bans. Some analysts are saying we will never return to normal. They say what we have now is the ‘new normal’. And central to this ‘new normal’ are the travel restrictions.

The travel and tourism industry was the first to bear the brunt of the pandemic. Exactly a year ago, countries around the world were declaring unprecedented hard lockdowns and travel bans in a desperate attempt to stop the spread of the virus that originated from Wuhan, China. Tourists cancelled their bookings; some who were in the middle of their travels had to prematurely cut them short and rush back to their home countries to stay locked in.

Worldwide tour operators too were under the impression that COVID-19 was a just a passing phase that would “one day, like a miracle” quickly fade away, so they called for the tourists who had already booked to just “postpone and not cancel” to save the industry. They thought the industry would, by now, be back in full throttle. “We will soon travel again, for now please stay home,” they kept the hope.

In Botswana, 2020 was supposed to have been the return of the glorious times, especially in the Okavango Delta region. The 2018/19 drought that led to the drying of Lake Ngami, and rivers such as Boro, Thamalakane, and Boteti was over. The big flood of 2019/20 was fast approaching and promising more wild experiences in the Delta.

And just when the people of Boro, the Okavango Kopano Mokoro Community Trust (OKMCT) members who trade in offering mokoro trails into the Delta, were just returning home after a whole year camping out at Daunara where there was water, COVID-19 dashed all their hopes. In May 2020, when the water finally arrived, they were not even allowed to freely go and enjoy the spectacle of seeing the new water. Tourism was effectively cancelled.

In a country where tourism contributes an annual total of 15.3% directly and indirectly into the GDP, suspension of tourism activities meant that 10.2% of the total workforce was in danger. This was exacerbated by the fact that Botswana tourism attracts mostly foreigners who are wowed by the pristine wilderness that the country prides itself with. When the borders were closed and lockdown instituted, tourism revenues plummeted. 

But in the beginning it was not all gloom and doom as the central government made unprecedented welfare state programmes to support the private businesses and people affected. Tourism operators were first in the queue for wage subsidies from government. Although it was a good and welcome gesture from the state to rescue the private organisations that were sinking, it was never meant to last forever. Government too thought COVID-19 was going to be history sooner than later. They had thought they could see the shore but it was just a mirage. 

When COVID-19 finally reared its ugly head as local numbers escalated, the government dumped the tourism wage subsidy after an extension to December 2020. The industry was left to crash, with a hope that it would someday pick up the pieces post COVID-19 - a time that is everyone’s guess. 

Despite the bleeding industry, COVID-19 offered a great opportunity for Batswana to travel within their country. Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO) led a campaign to promote domestic tourism dubbed Rediscover Botswana. Those with disposal incomes and seeking to break free from the lockdown monotony, travelled within the country.

But the success of such a campaign was directly going against the main COVID-19 protocol of discouraging leisure travel. Then came the dilemma of sustaining the hospitality industry while discouraging people to travel. At the end the Minister responsible for promoting tourism cowed to the health officials and publicly urged people to “postpone travel plans”.

The fact that Botswana mainly serves the top end safari experiences with some of the world’s most wanted resorts consumed by ultra-wealthy foreigners, compounded the situation. Eventually the amount of domestic tourists and their buying power was just a far cry to sustain the industry. So most operators have closed shop, sent staff home with no pay, with the hope that one day, in the not so distant future, tourists will break out of the COVID-19 jail and return to rediscover Botswana.

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