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A rejoinder to Joubert: Whose tourism is it anyways?

Firstly, may I thank Derek Joubert on the enlightening first paragraph of his article (Mmegi page 15 Vol 31) on the overall value of the tourism industry globally.

Clearly, we still have much to learn if we are to catch up with the rest of the world in getting tourism to average a contribution of 30% to our gross domestic product (GDP). It was also interesting to learn that 80% of annual trips for tourism to Africa (meaning tourists from outside Africa) came for wildlife viewing.  Now, I stand to be corrected, but if there is a country that has wildlife in abundance, the Big 5, in its most natural setting, Botswana is surely way in the upper league.

That should mean a very sizeable component of the 80% of the $137.37 billion (according to 2015 UN World Tourism Organisation figures) spent on African tourism should be landing on our shores and be reflected by the lifestyles of citizens of Botswana, especially those in tourism. It is after all our forefathers and ourselves that have continued to responsibly share our land with and protect these marvellous, treasured species of the ecosystem.  In fact, the same wildlife is now dangerously encroaching on human land due to its population explosion exacerbated by their escape from neighbouring countries where there is little protection from poachers. Surely one expects that Batswana should be very well off from all those tourism dollars.

Surprisingly, according to one Erik Verreynne writing for Sommerville Sustainable Conservation, the stark opposite is true. According to Erik Verreynne, quoting from the Botswana Statistics report, the tourism industry of Botswana directly contributed 3.8 percent to Botswana’s GDP, equating to P7.13 billion or $713 million.

But that is not all, this is from a total tourism pie of about 2.5 million visitors, with only 150,000 visitors actually coming from outside the Southern African region.  I do understand tourists from outside Africa are big spenders, and even though there is no information on their actual spending, I feel attributing 50% of the tourism spend to them, at about P3.5 billion, or $350 million, is a bit too optimistic, but I will go with that. So let us suppose this is what they spent in 2015 according to Statistics Botswana.

Joubert, however, states that the tourism industry contributes $2 billion to the Botswana economy! Surely between him and Statistics Botswana someone is wrong. But maybe not. Maybe Statistics Botswana is going with the registered figures and taxes paid by the Botswana tourism industry.  Maybe Joubert is also correct and reflecting the true value of the tourism spend according to figures supplied by his tourism industry peers directly to him. Then that would mean information is being manipulated and would certainly validate the current Botswana public outcry on the very little value tourism has created for the welfare of Batswana, especially those within the wildlife areas and working in the sector.  Being amongst the very few Batswana who is fortunate enough to afford an entry level tourism package to visit northern Botswana (an impossible dream for the average Motswana) where wildlife is concentrated, it is shocking to realise the semi-servitude black employees are subjected to once one visits.  It is as if the staff gets trained to distinguish patrons by race, and to hold tourists of European descent in higher regard. Yet these employees, as Joubert attests to in his article, seem economically far behind and have been left far behind the rest of Batswana as they are probably the only citizens who still don’t have access to electricity and water.  Yet they live and work in an area where a hotel room rate per night can cost as much as $7,000!

Joubert, in his effort to show his industry’s commitment to community upliftment of Batswana communities around which they operate, proudly writes of the paltry $2.3 million, (about 0.01% of the money the industry

rakes in according to Joubert) that was ‘donated’ to be spent on healthcare, sports facilities and sanitation.   In ordinary societies, these are the core responsibilities of any industry expecting its employees to live and work in remote areas. There is also no mention whatsoever of the upliftment of the community from an education standpoint.  Now this makes me wonder how Joubert and his million dollar earning industry peers expect those communities to escape the realm of poverty without knowledge and mental upliftment. The bigger cry though is why most of the tourism dollars paid for visiting Botswana, are paid for outside Botswana? This constitutes one of the biggest tax frauds committed by the industry, because then who is to know how much the industry truly earns so as to enable the Botswana government to come up with an accurate tax bill? What of the room royalties due to the communities?

Another similar sized if not larger, less noticed fraud by Batswana and seemingly the government, is that of the wildlife filming industry and the money they earn through wildlife filming. I am confident most Batswana would be dizzied to learn how much an average US city, for example, charges for Hollywood to shoot a movie in that city. We recently learnt of the National Geographic film, Into The Okavango, being lined up for an Emmy Award. So can the producers tell Batswana what that film will earn in royalties for Batswana? It is us after all Batswana who ensure the protection, security and survival of the Emmy Award winning Okavango Delta, the star of the show, and the wildlife around it.

Almost none of the wildlife films I have watched ever mention filming in Botswana, or explain Botswana as a country and its people, except as if in passing.

There are probably no more than five lines in the film Into the Okavango making reference to Botswana. Batswana deserve credit of the highest order for their natural resources. It is not by coincidence that Batswana have preserved their nature and wildlife.

Setswana culture is organised around conservation of trees and responsible coexistence with wildlife. This is the reason the majority of poachers within Botswana are not Batswana.  It is very disheartening to hear Joubert make reference to the 90,000 jobs his industry has created, as I find that debatable also.

More importantly, what is the quality of those jobs and do they serve to uplift the employees out of poverty beyond guaranteeing subsistence? And has the industry really empowered anyone from the communities that they operate in to become independent operators? Instead, we hear stories of foreign operators who get government operational permits under the pretext of forming co-op type tourist camps with the communities they will operate in.


It always thereafter becomes clear that such is not the case and the operators only operate self-enrichment schemes.

In conclusion, I wish to urge that tourism operators who continue to give the communities in which they operate a raw deal, based on that community’s ignorance, consider amending their ways. It is never too late to do so and life is increasingly proving that it pays more to act in good faith. It may be this year, next year, or 20 years from today, but the communities that continue to be shortchanged by self-seeking tourism operators will one day find their feet. 

The world is becoming smaller and in finding their feet, those communities may someday come after the operators who act in bad faith in the courts of their land to recover what was taken unfairly from them.

*Batsile Nwako is a contributor to Mmegi. He is involved in transport and logistics and is the current chairperson of the Transport Sector at Business Botswana

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