The country’s largest tourism group, Wilderness Safaris, says no cancellations have yet been recorded as a result of the Omicron variant, as clients adopt a wait and see attitude. While the new strain has triggered memories of the disaster that unfolded last year when COVID-19 first hit, the industry is better prepared this time. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI explains why
Derek de la Harpe, Wilderness Holdings’ commercial director, remembers how the business believed it could withstand the impact of the pandemic when COVID-19 first arrived in Botswana last March. While various sectors of the economy knew that lockdowns and other restrictions would likely follow, each tried to gauge exactly what the specific impact on their own operations would be.
“We believed that the business lent itself well to operating in the situation of a lockdown because it is about low numbers of people and activities are mostly outdoors,” he says.
“Before the lockdowns, we thought we would be able to continue operating but when these measures came, they also involved airlines stopping flights to Botswana and continued operations became impossible.”
Okavango Wilderness Safaris, Wilderness Holdings’ local unit, is the country’s largest tourism group with 18 camps located in prime safari areas such as the Okavango Delta. The homegrown group employs about 1,000 workers and with 85% of its procurement done locally, Okavango Wilderness Safaris supports businesses and communities in areas such as Ngamiland.
The group responded to the initial impact of COVID-19 by closing seven camps and initiating cost containment such as through tough decisions within its workforce, although no workers were retrenched. By their nature, even if camps are closed, they have to be kept on care and maintenance to ensure the bush does not ‘take over’, adding an operational cost to the group, even when tourist revenue is unavailable.
Okavango Wilderness Safaris earned just five percent of the expected revenue last year, due to the COVID-19 impact, but the experience also helped it introduce several measures to boost resilience and preparation. From March last year, the group introduced strict COVID-19 protocols including the requirement for a PCR test before entry at its camps and the employment of on-site nurses at its major camps. Minimal cases of COVID-19 transmission between workers and guests were recorded.
In addition, the group partnered with government and the Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana in the rollout of vaccines to tourism workers, providing staff and aircraft to assist the campaign.
To date, 95% of Okavango Wilderness’ staff have had at least one vaccination, while the broader campaign resulted in 4,000 people receiving vaccinations in the Ngamiland and Chobe area.
The group was therefore able to withstand the worst of the third wave, which hit Botswana from mid-June to mid-August, causing a peak of nearly 51,000 cases in July and a record 573 deaths in the same month.
“We were able to carry on operating through the third wave although at a lower level than normal and it’s important to note that the extent of vaccination at that point was nowhere near as far progressed as we are now,” de la Harpe says.
And therein lies the difference between the COVID-19 impact of 2020 and the threat posed by Omicron, the highly mutated variant that has caused global panic and chaos since Botswana identified and reported it a week and a half ago.
“We are that much further down the line and if a fourth wave comes, between high vaccination and the protocols we have in place, we should be able to weather the storm.
“It’s important for the world to calm down and breathe and not adopt knee-jerk reactions that are not informed by science,” de la Harpe says.
While higher vaccinations and established protocols insulate the industry to an extent, the similarity between the initial wave of COVID-19 and the Omicron panic is that many countries have instituted travel bans as a response. Okavango Wilderness and other high-end tourism players are largely dependent on countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and those in the European Union for their clientele.
Although the leaders of many of these countries have said their travel bans to Southern Africa will be reviewed within weeks depending on the studies being done into the transmissibility and lethality of Omicron, the uncertainty already caused does not lend itself well to the country’s recovering tourism sector.
“The announcement (of Omicron’s discovery) created a lot of anxiety and the moment it hit, phones started ringing with people asking what we are doing about it,” Okavango Wilderness chairperson, Kabelo Binns, reveals. “Our position is that we have great faith in the protocols in place and in fact, the whole region has done very well with limited vaccine supply, to make sure the industry is a lot better than it could have been.
“That’s the best that we can share with the agents.” For the group, Omicron came at a time when Okavango Wilderness was eyeing the key April to September 2022 period for its recovery. For the northwest tourism heartland, the period between those two months marks the peak tourism period when drier weather conditions boost wildlife viewing as the animals congregate at the fewer water sources available. The terrain is also more navigable and the foliage in the bush is thinner when compared to the wet summer months.
“We were really thinking that from April this coming year, we would be out of the woods,” Binns says. “Once we are in trouble, the knock-on effect for the entire district is very huge and we have seen it in indicators of poverty such as crime and others.”
More positively, however, the variant has arrived at a traditional low business point for the tourism industry and Binns says thus far, there have been no short-term cancellations for the festive period. All eyes, however, are on the key April bookings. “The world has taken a wait and see approach.
“We have heard and we pray that it indeed is true that the variant causes mild symptoms because then it would not have a huge impact on our bookings, but if not, we will need to be as agile and fluid as the world is saying we should be.
“We hope government will continue to work with the industry to assist.” In the next few weeks, local scientists and their counterparts in the region and beyond will have a better understanding of Omicron, guiding decisions on the closure of borders and global travel. The local tourism sector is keenly following all the developments as if lives are on the line. Which is because they are.