After 13 years of planning, the new Tourism Policy was recently unveiled, spelling out various ways to further develop the industry. One question, however, is whether the new plan will finally give citizens a bigger piece of the multi-billion pula industry? Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports
COVID-19 and its impact on travel, borders and arrivals, shrank this contribution down to P9.6 billion last year, with about 53,000 jobs.
Despite the contraction, tourism and travel remain a strong contributor to the economy being a key avenue for foreign currency receipts and an engine of economic activity for towns and villages in the remote parts of the country.
For decades, Batswana have been piling pressure on policymakers to open up the industry to them and enable citizens to access opportunities in tourism beyond just employment and supply of consumables.
Much of the billions of pula flowing in the tourism sector is in the hands of foreign-owned or controlled entities or non-indigenous Batswana, due in part to the historical barriers to entry for citizens.
Analysts have said the government’s tourism policies have focussed on growth in the tourism heartland of the North West, where the Okavango Delta and major parks have become the country’s prime attractions. Securing a foothold in this corner of the country requires resources beyond the reach of the average citizen and the fact that most of the concessions there have long been allocated, means even a freshly empowered Motswana would be unlikely to successfully bid for a lease.
The most sought-after concessions in the North-West are awarded by community trusts and Land Boards to bidders via an auction system where citizens are traditionally out-muscled by more resourced, experienced and technically superior operators. In addition, it is reported that these auctions give existing leaseholders the right of first refusal, effectively ensuring the same players hold onto the leases until they decide to let go.
The debate on greater citizen inclusion via deliberate government policy was reignited last year after the closure of borders resulted in the tourism sector looking to Batswana for survival. The WTTC estimates that in 2020, for the first time, locals spent more in the tourism sector than foreign arrivals. Locals spent P3.3 billion in the tourism sector in 2020 compared to P1.3 billion by outsiders.
Naturally, questions began being asked why Batswana were not effectively represented in an industry they spent P3.3 billion supporting its most difficult year? How much of these billions spent by locals actually empowered citizen enterprises? Or did this spending drift out of the country to foreign investors?
While the pandemic reignited the debate, poor citizen empowerment in tourism has long been acknowledged by government. Where the first Tourism Policy, formulated in 1990, sought to maximise the industry’s financial returns to the country as a whole, the Tourism Masterplan of 2000 spoke about community/citizen participation, public/private partnerships and job creation in rural areas.
Tourism policies have undergone reviews and other strategies have come in over the years, but the level of citizen participation in the most lucrative areas such as the Delta has been underwhelming.
The new policy, like its predecessors, acknowledges this fact.
“Prime tourism opportunities such as prime lodges and higher-end hotels remain in the hands of a few
dominant operators and therefore citizen participation in tourism is for lower investments.
“Furthermore, joint ventures between citizens and foreigners have been extremely limited.
“Very few tourism-related companies have floated their shares for wider citizen participation.
“Successful true partnerships and joint ventures between communities and tourism business operators are few and far between,” the policy reads.
While thematically the acknowledgement echoes previous policies, it is unique in that it marks a break from a defensive position adopted by government in previous discussions of citizen participation in tourism. When the matter has been brought up in platforms such as Parliament, government has quickly reeled off numbers showing that Batswana actually hold more tourism licences than foreigners.
The key criticism has been that these licences are in non-prime areas and that the Delta remains the preserve of non-citizens, while government has argued that initiatives such as the Land Bank and sub-zoning of prime concessions are in the pipeline.
The plans to sub-divide the existing concessions in the Delta have been on the cards for some time. One of the greatest difficulties, however, is that the ‘low-impact, high value’ model policy used to manage tourism activities in the Delta of necessity limits the number of tourism operators in the ecologically sensitive area.
Introduced via the Tourism Masterplan of 2000 as the “preferred policy for Botswana,” the low impact, high-value approach focusses on securing lower numbers of higher-paying tourists, as opposed to the mass-marketing approach used worldwide. While policymakers have said the policy is critical for the Delta’s environmental sensitivities, critics have noted that the approach has become so ingrained in the mindset of authorities, that it has been applied indiscriminately countrywide even in areas that are not as ecologically sensitive as the Delta. In addition, the approach has served to put the country’s most attractive tourism destinations out of the reach of citizens, with one-night stays in some camps costing up to $5,000.
The new policy relaxes the low impact, high-value approach and says, to an extent, it has been responsible for the lack of growth in the tourism sector, particularly the entry of citizens.
“While this exclusive approach has received much recognition, the challenge with this positioning is that the high-end, exclusive safari lodge industry offers limited expansion opportunities as most of the valuable resources for this market level have been developed,” the new policy notes.
“Even if more areas are opened up and more concessions are awarded for such exclusive developments, growth will remain limited given the importance of retaining visitor exclusivity.
“There is a need to expand the positioning to broaden the range of middle-to-high tourism market segments and products, thus improving visitor yields while retaining the essence of the wilderness brand.”
Okavango Wilderness Safaris, one of the country’s biggest tourism operators with high-end camps in the Delta, agrees that there is room to relax the low impact, high-value approach, to an extent.
“We believe that government’s objectives in this regard will best be achieved by widening the geographic footprint of tourism into new areas, rather than by increasing levels of impact in existing areas,” the group’s chair, Kabelo Binns says.
“And there are undoubtedly areas that are less ecologically sensitive than the Delta.
“The new policy is targeting the whole of Botswana, not just the Okavango.”
According to Binns, the key is to conduct planning and environmental assessments in such a manner as to ensure that the proposed tourism models do not result in negative impacts on the systems upon which they depend, “as this will ultimately be self-defeating”.
“This has always been the case in the Delta and long may we use Environmental Impact Assessments to determine the most optimal balance of the number of guests and the impact on the environment,” he says.
Using EIAs, industry players say, will help government and budding citizen entrepreneurs identify tourism areas that can accommodate high volume tourism activities that have proven more successfully in kickstarting tourism enterprise globally, as opposed to the niche, low volume approach.
Lily Rakorong, chief executive officer (CEO) of the Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana (HATAB), says the low impact high-value model should not be applied indiscriminately countrywide, but also cannot be erased from the country’s approach to tourism in ecologically sensitive areas. HATAB is the umbrella body for the country’s hospitality and tourism industry.
“It will work in some areas, but it does not have to apply everywhere,” the CEO says.
“That model applies in the Delta, but it does not have to apply in the east or other places because there are management plans for those areas that can guide us.
“Even within the Delta, there could be a possibility of saying how do we do the medium value and other models.
“The bigger issue must be sustainable tourism and we should be looking more at diversifying our tourism product as a country and enhancing its geographic spread.”
She adds: “We often look at wildlife and wilderness, but tourism is very broad and includes culture, heritage and others.
“We should not just be looking at the Delta, but areas like the Kgalagadi, the north-east and others.”
‘Heritage and culture’ tourism has become a buzzword amongst government technocrats involved in tourism policy. The idea is that the country has numerous under-profiled and under-developed tourism sites which are based on heritage/culture and therefore non-consumptive and citizen-based.
The harshest cynics of this shift however argue that citizens are being ‘frog-marched’ to heritage tourism around villages and culture, while the Delta remains hands-off. Less harsh critics point out that many of these heritage sites lack adequate infrastructure to support tourism activities, while communities there are unable to set up the ecosystems required for thriving businesses.
Besides the infrastructure to provide access and support, the ecosystem involves not just an attractive tourism product, but also robust marketing, booking systems with travel agents and continuous investment in branding.
The villagers of Moshana know the challenges of heritage tourism first-hand. Located near Kanye, Moshana village houses the little known but impressive ruins of an old Ba-Ngwaketse capital built in 1790. Known as Makolontwane, the expansive complex was built without the use of mortar and is unique in being the only known stone ruins located on communal land.
Getting to the site involves taking a gravel road leading northwest from Moshana village. Then getting onto a donkey-cart path that branches off at a gentle northwards angle. From a ridge alongside the Moshana River, a two-kilometre hike will take you to the rocky terrain, before the ancient capital slowly comes into view.
“We are thinking of mountain biking, picnics, shelters, campsite and the sale of local arts and crafts here,” Village Development Committee chair, Carah Rakgomo told Mmegi previously.
Even with support from Non-Governmental Organisations such as the Botswana Society and government assistance through the National Environment Fund, transforming Makolontwane into a heritage tourism site is a tough ask.
And the area badly needs transformation. Poverty is a way of life for many at Moshana village, which has little economic activity apart from a few government posts and the local quarry, formerly an asbestos mine. In fact, a Statistics Botswana report classified 988 of the 1,627 villagers as ‘poor’ in 2010.
What does the new tourism policy promise to the villagers of Moshana and their peers across the country?
“(The policy involves) facilitating and giving special preference to Foreign Direct Investment in tourism that embraces public floating of shares through stock markets, joint ventures with citizens, entrepreneurial and management skills development and international market access,” the policy reads.
The policy promises to strengthen the Land Bank and develop a framework of incentives to facilitate investments that meet strategic criteria such as investment in rural areas and diversified products such as cultural and heritage tourism, adventure and sport tourism as well as community-based tourism.
Rakorong agrees that support is needed to facilitate heritage tourism.
“Our view is that the most important thing is access,” she says. “When you create access through transport linkages, connectivity such as the Internet and others, you have done the bulk of what you need in terms of making tourism work in the country.
“The other factors will fall into place.”
So where does this leave Batswana in the conversation about their participation in tourism? The new policy has 15 points dedicated to the interventions for citizens, including granting preferential allocation of 70% to new entrants to the industry, identifying and reserving tourism land parcels for citizens and reserving ‘certain activities’ for citizen participation.
The issue of subdividing existing large concessions and granting them to citizens is also mentioned in the new policy, alongside identifying activities in the tourism value chain that are suitable for local entrepreneurship. Capacity building of entrepreneurs and communities is also mentioned as one of the top priorities of the new policy.
In addition, the new policy will allow land allocated to citizens through the tourism citizen economic
empowerment model to be used as collateral by allottees to secure shareholding and/or partnerships.
Rakorong says funding is the key challenge for citizens in tourism.
“Access to capital and funding is the key issue, as well as access to land, then entrepreneurial skills come into play.
“Market access is also another issue to be looked at.
“This industry is very capital intensive and being out there in the bush, the costs of doing business can be very high.
“We believe incentives must be considered to say if I’m putting the necessary infrastructure in place and the government is not, then the necessary incentives must be considered to support Batswana to reduce the capital intensity.”
HATAB says it is currently studying the policy to identify ‘quick wins’.
The lobby group is also expecting an implementation strategy to flow from the new policy to identify the roles, particularly in funding, that will be played by the private sector and government.
From the government side, it is expected that entities such as the Botswana Development Corporation, the Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency and the Local Enterprise Authority will take the lead in funding and mentorship to support the new tourism policy.
Players in the sector say the new policy provides room for tourism’s growth and the entry of citizens. COVID-19 has reset previous dynamics in the industry, allowing its recovery to coincide with the introduction of the new interventions. Implementation, however, will once again be critical.
Okavango Wilderness Safaris says it welcomes the new push towards greater citizen participation. “We would be supportive of responsible measures to ensure greater citizen participation in the industry as we are a proudly Botswana born and raised business that is now a global player,” Binns says.
“We believe that citizen participation should happen at all levels of the tourism value chain, from employment to suppliers, from ownership to investors. “Batswana can and should look to tourism as a sound opportunity to build wealth.
“There are many opportunities for that to occur and we, as a significant player, will play our part where we are invited and where we can.
“Batswana may not all be able to build and operate lodges, but many more will be able to participate in the value chain, and in that, we are actively supportive.”
Batswana sitting on the sidelines and watching the billions of pula flow by in the tourism sector will be hoping the new policy is not more of the same in terms of planning without sound implementation.