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Responding to COVID-19 in the tourism sector: Acknowledging the complexity

Wildlife at a Game Park
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has put the world at a stand-still, creating uncertainty and threatening world economies.

The restrictions in movement have not only suffocated the tourism sector through closing out international travellers, but have also limited the room for expanding the already limping domestic tourism. Jobs within the sector are highly threatened and some have been lost. The aftermath of COVID-19 has exposed the social, economic, ecological, and social threads connecting tourism sector to the rest of Botswana’s economy and beyond.

Over the years, there has been an increasing interest in complexity analysis approach as a framework for understanding social and economic systems. A complex system is loosely defined as a system that shows emergence behaviour that is more than a sum of the parts of the system alone. In this context, the concept of ‘emergence’ describes a system that portrays properties such as rich, dynamic and non-linear interactions that often provide output known as feedback. Therefore, a complex system exhibits manifestation of various nascent properties that cannot be merely defined from the behaviour of its component. The interdependencies that characterise the system contribute to the manifestation of emergent properties.

Tourism, by virtue of operating in an interconnected and interdependent system, is a complex system. It is portrayed by complex social, cultural and ecological dynamics and processes, and it cuts across several sectors of the economy locally and internationally. Therefore, tourism sector institutions and decisions are faced with complex natural resource limits that are not necessarily a product of the sector itself. In addition to the natural resource limits, the upsurge of corona virus has exposed the vulnerability of the sector to shocks.

We failed as a country to create cushions to absorb the effects of the shocks by learning that ecotourism specifically, and sustainable tourism generally are not just fancy words we need to throw around in speeches. They are concepts that could have prepared the local economy for ripple effects of COVID-19 if we noticed the depth and true meaning of having locals and local communities at the centre of our tourism sector. 

The mistake we often make as

a country insofar as tourism is concerned is that we operate like we are in a solo ride in an industry that is largely dependent on the international market. The high-value-low-volume stance is telling.

This needs to change. COVID-19 creates a rare window of opportunity to re-think, re-design and re-establish our tourism institutions as Botswana. It forces us to sell our services to the global market even when the world market is not free to move and to promote it within the local market now when the borders are closed. This requires us to change the tourism language, policy and approach. It necessitates approaching institutional design in the sector with both an inward-looking approach to leverage on the domestic market and a global outlook post COVID-19.

The complexity of the threads between the tourism sector and the rest of the economy entails thinking about its recovery plan in a way that is different from other sectors. The peculiarity of the sector lies on the product it offers. Unlike in other sectors, the consumption of its product is dependent on movement and a layer of services in terms of transport, procurement done by agents, accommodation and hospitality amongst others.

The silence of the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism is deafening and the apparent lack of dialogue between her ministry and academics is worrisome, especially in a country where knowledge-based economy is the chorus and science-best practice should be practiced. The mistake the Minister and her team is making is to be trapped by the status quo, thinking that they can save the tourism sector on their own without first appreciating it as a complex system. The complexity of the sector necessitates the development of institutions and decision-making structures that position tourism as a product of the whole economy, as opposed to governing the sector as a subset of the whole.

*Prof Patricia Kefilwe Mogomotsi, PhD is an Associate Professor (Natural Resources Economics) in the Okavango Research Institute, University of Botswana

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