Debunking the myths of Botswana's tourism boycott

Elephants are in the headlines again
Elephants are in the headlines again

Since the proposal to lift the hunting ban in Botswana was announced, advocates against it have been using bullying tactics and twisting of facts against Botswana.

A common approach is to threaten Botswana with a tourism boycott. They are saying the 2.5 million of foreign tourists visiting Botswana to photograph elephants are contributing massively to the country’s 11.5% tourism gross domestic product (GDP) and creating 76, 000 jobs.

The implication is that these millions of people will refuse to visit Botswana if the hunting ban is lifted. The latest threat is based on a poll commissioned by Humane Society International in the US on people’s perception about the lifting of the hunting ban. Many articles headlined “Botswana risks losing US tourists on lifting the hunting ban” are appearing in the media.

But how real is the suggested impact of a tourism boycott regarding lifting the hunting ban?  Let me first question the HSI poll.

The poll suggested that 78% of the 1, 091 people who responded were against lifting the hunting ban, implying that 851 people is representative of tourists from the US and of eco-tourists visiting Botswana.

It states that only 27% of respondents said they would still consider visiting should the ban be lifted. It conveniently does not state if 73% of the respondents said they would not visit. Neither does it state how many of the respondents have visited Botswana before.

The current manipulation of travel statistics is very misleading and is creating false impressions. It clouds real issues and complicates finding lasting solutions. 

A very common source for many of the abused statistics is the 2018 World Travel and Tourism Report on Botswana.

According to the report, Travel and Tourism directly contributed P7.13 billion (3.8 percent of the total GDP) to the Botswana economy in 2017. Travel and tourism contributed in total (direct, indirect and induced) a whopping P24.5 billion (or 11.5%) to the GDP in the same year.

The sector directly provided 26,000 jobs (2.6 percent of total employment) in 2017. The sector provided in total 7.6 percent of the total employment, translating to 76,000 jobs in the same year. About 1.8 million tourists visited Botswana in 2017 compared to 1. 6 million in 2015.

Tourism and travel is expected to grow annually at about 4.5 percent for the next 10 years. There is no doubt that tourism is big business even in Botswana.

But the first myth that needs to be debunked is the following: Travel and Tourism total GDP and job contributions are cited to support the value of wildlife-based tourism.  This is a twisting of facts. Only the direct contribution of the Travel and Tourism sector to the GDP and jobs are relevant since wildlife-based tourism contributes very little to the total T&T GDP and a boycott by a section of wildlife-based tourists will not significantly affect the total contribution to the GDP.

To support my point, we need to look at what is considered as Travel and Tourism in the Report.

The WTTC report included commodities as Accommodation, Transportation, Entertainment and Attractions and services related to Accommodation, Food & Beverages, Retail Trade, Transportation and Cultural, Sports & Recreational as the industries involved. 

Most importantly, it considered sources of spending as residents’ domestic travel spending, businesses’ domestic travel, visitors exports and individual government travel spending.

The second myth regarding the role of wildlife-based tourism in Botswana is therefore the following; Arrival statistics that is widely cited to support retaining the hunting ban does not only include eco-tourists, and the tourism revenues widely cited do not necessarily mean wildlife related revenues and does not only include people visiting Botswana for eco-tourism.

It includes all people travelling in and into Botswana and staying in hotels and lodges and guesthouses and all people buying at retailers.

That include people visiting friends and family, sport and art events, business visits or transit visits and Batswana and residents including civil servants attending workshops or reporting to regional and head offices. It even includes hunters visiting game ranches where hunting continued. How many tourists really visit Botswana for its attractions and how much do they really spend? The WTTC report stipulates that 74.1% of T&T spending considered were leisure travel related against 25.9% of business travel related spending. 

Leisure spending consisted of both domestic (50.3%) travel related and inbound or foreign related travel (49.7%) spending. Therefore, when it comes to foreign visitor leisure spending, the true direct contribution now comprises just over a third of the 3.8 percent direct travel and tourism GDP.

The 2015 Tourism Statistics report from Botswana Statistics clearly exposes the misleading citing of tourism figures to support hidden agendas.

Of the 2.5 million arrivals to Botswana in 2015, only 1.6 million were tourists and were contributing to the direct tourism GDP of about 3.8% (P7.13 billion).

Of these 1.6 million tourists, only 258, 558 (15.6%) were visiting as leisure tourists. Of these leisure tourists, less than 150, 000 (147 670) were from outside the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries mainly the US (28%), UK (17%) and Germany (17%).

Taking in consideration the expected tourism growth since 2015, the number of leisure tourists from outside the SADC region is most likely closer to 170, 000 in 2017.

The effective total foreign leisure spending including by those visitors from neighbouring countries were just over a third of the direct GDP (about P2.62 billion). 

The truth is that the gun held against Botswana’s head by opponents of lifting the hunting ban involves only about 170, 000 visitors spending part of the P2.62 billion as part of the direct T&T GDP. 

It is not possible to know exactly how much the 170, 000 tourists spent in Botswana during 2017. It will be reasonable to assume that with the strong USD exchange rate and high-end tourism packages where tourists can spend as much as P70, 000 per night per person in peak season, the amounts paid by these tourists are significant.

However, even though significant and much needed, it is a far cry from the millions of visitors and revenues dished up to the public to prove a point.

And that raises another relevant question: How much of those millions paid by the overseas tourists eventually reach Botswana, contribute to the GDP and improve the well being of its people?

According to Prof Joseph Mbaiwa from the Okavango Research Institute, the estimated leakage of high-end tourism operating in the prime wildlife tourism areas may be as high as 70% and in the process significantly avoid paying taxes in Botswana.

That means a significant portion of what the nearly 170, 000 predominantly US and EU tourists paid in 2017 to experience Botswana did not reach Botswana and therefore did not contribute to the GDP or tax coffers. 

Furthermore, the policy of high-end safari operators to fly tourists off to their lodges within 20 minutes after arrival at the international airport, prevent any direct local spending.

It therefore does not stimulate the grassroots economy compared to what business and self- drive tourism do. As a result, while Botswana’s rich wildlife resources supports a multi-million-dollar wildlife-based safari industry, most of the people in these areas live in poverty while high paying foreign tourists believe they are making a difference to the economy in Botswana. 

Tourism is important for the economy of Botswana and will always be. But high-end wildlife-based tourism supported by a relatively small number of US and EU tourists only contributes to a relatively small part of our GDP.

The animal rights and anti-hunting lobby is manipulating foreign tourist income figures to further their own course and articles like this are used to bully Botswana as alternative to civilised dialogue.

Most of the key players in the wildlife-based tourism industry are strangely silent about the boycott issue. One local operator’s own poll amongst its clients found only one percent of the existing clients were concerned about the lifting of the hunting ban.

So the proverbial gun is not loaded but aimed into the herd.

*Erik Verreynne is a conservationist and wildlife and livestock vet based in Botswana since 2003. He has a Masters Degree in Wildlife Management and is involved in various conservation projects promoting community involvement

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