Botswana, SA air service talks collapse

Staff Writer
Tourism operators say the breakdown in talks over a Bilateral Air Service Agreement (BASA) between Botswana and South Africa will result in the country losing its tourism competitive advantage to other regions such as East Africa.

Following the collapse of negotiations between the two countries last July, South Africa forced Botswana to cease its Johannesburg-Maun direct flight from the beginning of October in retaliation for Botswana's continued monopolisation of the route.

South African airlines have been trying to break into the lucrative route, but the Botswana Government has refused to open the coveted corridor in order to protect Air Botswana, the national carrier.

Other than Air Botswana, no other airline is currently permitted to have a scheduled flight from Johannesburg - which is the air access point of nearly all long-haul traffic from Europe and USA - to Maun, the largest tourist attraction in the region. 

Following the ban, Air Botswana has made improvisations and will first fly to Gaborone, make a 20-minute stopover, and then proceed to Maun.

In a statement announcing the development to industry, Air Botswana's acting Commercial Director Helen Chilisa says in order to try and make up for the extended flying time, a jet will be used to operate the route instead of the turboprops.

However, tourism operators feel this arrangement will not only result in their clients losing activities in the camps but also frustrate them due to longer flying times.

Says a source that operates camps in the world famous Okavango Delta: "Clients travelling to Botswana and visiting our lodges are by and large high-end. They do not want the inconvenience of a stopover in Gaborone.

"This impediment to access will erode our competitiveness in the regional market. Making it more difficult to access Botswana has the potential of losing our business to alternative destinations like East Africa. The time window for operation is now reduced for air charter operators in the delta.

"This means that in all likelihood, our scheduling efficiencies will be reduced while our costs will go up. There is also the real likelihood that guests will lose one activity in the camps due to added time delays."

Another operator based in Maun told Business Week that while the added travel time will not only be unpalatable to agents and guests alike, there is also a likelihood of increased congestion at Maun Airport, which is already one of the busiest in the region.

"Due to the diversion to Gaborone, the flight will arrive in Maun late

and depart earlier," she said. "With the narrowing of arrival and departure times of Air Botswana at Maun Airport, facilities will have to cope with all guests arriving and departing at the same time. 

The airport can barely handle the current traffic volumes without this extra bottleneck and congestion." Chilisa says they are hoping to resolve the issue as swiftly as possible because the Ministry of Transport and Communications regards negotiations with South Africa as a priority and that a date for re-negotiation of the BASA has been set.

Although the government has adopted an open skies policy, not much work has been done to that end as it is still committed to protecting Air Botswana. As a remedy, tourism operators have called on the government to either adopt a strategic plan to develop the airline and routes or let other players come in.

Said a manager with one of the country's biggest tourism operations: "If Government is not committed to the airline, then it must open the skies to foreign airlines and accept the consequences.

"The strength of the South African position is made worse for Botswana because in truth, nearly all the long-haul air access into Botswana is via OR Tambo [International Airport]. So long as Government sits in the middle with no direction, the tourism industry - all industry in Botswana, for that matter - will be adversely affected by poor connections."

Tourism is Botswana's second-largest foreign currency earner and GDP contributor after mining. The sector has been identified as one of the country's key drivers in its economic diversification efforts.

Government has unsuccessfully attempted to privatise Air Botswana three times in the past seven years. The attempts began with the Comair bid in 2003, followed by the Airlink attempt in 2006 and then the failed bid to engage a management company two years ago.

In an interview with Mmegi early this month, the Minister of Transport and Communications, Frank Ramsden, said the government was in the process of sprucing up the national airline in a bid to make it more attractive for privatising in the future.

Although he did not give any timeframes for the privatisation plans, Air Botswana continues to make losses, recording a P90-million haemorrhage in the 2008/09 financial year.



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