Tourism also plays a profoundly meaningful part in the national economy and society. In 2015, tourism accounted for an estimated share of 5 percent of GDP or about 8 percent of non-mining GDP. The sector is already more essential to Botswana than to many strongly established tourist destinations, such as South Africa. In addition, tourism in Botswana has an immense capacity for further growth. Given the country’s current dependency on mining and the intensifying pressure on job creation, tourism is also unusually well suited as a priority sector for economic diversification.
Sustainable tourism growth will, however, call for a firm commitment, serious investment and strategic leadership from the government of Botswana to advance its competitiveness in the global tourism arena. There is an immediate need for a tourism strategy that directs the marketing and development of key tourism attractions towards greater diversification and market expansion. Such a strategy will demand major government investment in areas such as road development and upgrading, airstrip improvements, and the enhanced provision of accommodation in wildlife parks to make tourism areas and attractions more accessible and appealing to a wider range of potential tourist segments.
This will have to be demanded while avoiding the dilution of the wilderness brand that may detract from the exclusive, remote wilderness experience available in Botswana. At the same time instituting improved planning, zoning and the management of parks and their wildlife management areas could also entice a broader spectrum of visitors and investors attracted to the country.
The Way Forward
The Chobe and Moremi Parks are the dominant national tourism attractions, which collectively account for over 90 percent of the core market segments. But an adherence to the low volume/high-value approach to tourism in Botswana, coupled with limited budgetary allocations, has led to under-investment in essential facilities and tourism infrastructure development.
Mounting pressure is being placed on the existing – and limited – infrastructure of these parks (and in particular Chobe) by the increase in day visitors and guests of the fast developing lodge industry located around the parks in Kasane and Maun.
This issue is of particular concern since Botswana’s overall tourism growth, and the economic development of the northern region is dependent on the ability of these key Parks to accommodate and sustain growth in the number of visitors. Demand for Botswana’s wildlife tourism products having exploded over the preceding 10 years, both because of a greater awareness of Botswana as a destination and the major growth of the Southern Africa tourism circuit.
As a result, tourism in and around Kasane and Maun has shown rapid growth and the tourism demand in these areas has resulted in significant increases in accommodation and other facilities. All of which are reliant upon the parks and wildlife areas for their continued existence and growth.
These developments have placed considerable pressure on the infrastructure of the parks, as many visitors to Chobe and to a lesser extent Moremi stay in Kasane and Maun in proximity the Parks and enter the Parks as day visitors, and requiring an optimal wildlife experience within a limited time. Large numbers of these day-trippers are from market segments other than the off-road, self-travel camping market and do not have access to 4-wheel drive vehicles.
Instead, they make use of mobile tour operators who transport them into the parks for day trips. And as a result, specific areas such as the Chobe riverfront section and limited areas of Moremi face considerable bottlenecks during limited periods of the year and times of the day.
Other than the Okavango Delta and the Chobe River Plains, the rest of the attractions in the country stay under-developed or unknown and therefore do not attract many visitors.
So there is considerable scope for strengthening and enriching the visitor’s experience. Botswana’s rich cultural heritage attractions, for instance, could form an extension to the core wildlife experience. With unique cultural attractions that could be offered as primary attractions.
A unique cultural resource being the San/Basara lifestyle and heritage, and the indigenous Batswana culture and lifestyle could complement the wildlife experience and thus add a further dimension to the tourism visit, but is not well developed and remains a complementary rather than a primary attraction.
Whilst the lesser frequented and lesser known conservation areas such as the Central Kalahari National Park, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the Makgadigadi and Nxai Pans offer an excellent opportunity for opening up the variety of alternative experiences in the Southern and Central parts of the country yet adequate and timely access in this underdeveloped region presents another challenge and opportunity to be leveraged in Botswana.
Botswana’s African wilderness status and wildlife icons are the brand assets that differentiate the destination from its competitors. These resources have tremendous emotional appeal to the growing global tourism market in search of enriching, authentic experiences who are seeking new horizons. The Okavango Delta, the elephants of the Chobe and the San culture are all marketable brand icons that contribute to the mystique and celebrity status of Botswana as a destination.
The true “wilderness” experience should, therefore, be preserved at all costs. Yet, visitor pressures are mounting in areas such as Chobe and Moremi and unless these are subjected to proactive planning and controls the industry could lose its wilderness advantage. It is necessary then for the public and private sectors agreeing on a holistic tourism development strategy. That diversifies the natural resource base and infrastructure to accommodate the various market segments, without detracting from the quality of their experiences.
This will demand proper zoning of conservation and wildlife management areas into high to moderate density and remote wilderness zones and to build the infrastructure to accommodate a variety of “wilderness-seeking” market segments.
Botswana should also capitalise on its pivotal location within the region and its closeness to South Africa, which could provide visitors to the subcontinent with a unique blend of true wilderness, spectacular scenic beauty, cosmopolitan city life and beach resort experiences all within easy reach on each other. The direct flights between Cape Town and Maun bode well for this vision. As does the recently opened Kazungula Bridge, connecting Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe through a singular access point that will also be a considerable asset for the region.
Liberalising African Skies
The agreement with South Africa towards open skies should also be embraced and is of critical relevance to the successful development of Botswana’s tourism industry. For now, however improved service levels, flight frequencies and price reductions will only become a reality when greater competition is allowed on air routes into Botswana.
Flight costs between overseas destinations such as Europe and the USA and South Africa stay prohibitively expensive and the added high airline costs to Botswana place the Botswana tourism circuit out of reach for a considerable section of travellers. And although airports are indispensable links in the tourism value chain, their success is conditional upon the synergy they produce with other elements of the overall tourism experience within the country.
To whit, the expansion of runways and airport facilities in towns such as Maun and Kasane will not be sustainable unless the national parks and conservation areas that provide the raison d’être for visitors to fly to these centres are improved and upgraded to accommodate the larger number of customers being ferried in through the airports.
The successful diversification of tourism towards the lesser-frequented tourist areas of the Central Kalahari, the Western Delta, the Pans and the Kgalagadi will also be enhanced through affordable and accessible air access. The Botswana Government owning a large network of airfields located across the country and the improved use of these airstrips which could ease the circulation of visitors to lesser-frequented areas. Acting as “sub-stations” for feeder routes from distribution hubs in Maun and Kasane and which could improve the fast and effective movement of tourists across the country.
Broadening the Range of Botswana’s Tourism
The Botswana government should also embark on a cultural tourism development initiative. Identifying those cultural tourism opportunities that could be implemented by local communities. Specifically the development of the ancient San cultural heritage, The San interpretation of the natural wilderness and their ancient traditions such as their rock art offering an unparalleled tourism experience.
Areas such as Tsodilo Hills and the Central Kalahari offering exceptional experiences. Whilst being sensitive to the fact that tourism may have significant social impacts on isolated local communities and thus the development of San culture for tourism should be carefully researched and managed and in cooperation with the relevant communities.
The planned network of Trans-frontier Conservation Areas also has the potential to establish the largest circuit of interlinked wilderness areas in the world and Botswana should make sure it capitalises as best as possible on this development.
One of Botswana’s major comparative advantages internationally is its diverse and abundant wildlife and the splendour of its natural resources witnessed by overcome travellers fortunate enough to visit Botswana. The Government having set aside over 17percent of all available land for National Parks and wildlife sanctuaries and a further 22 percent as wildlife management areas. These are resources that are sought after by tourists globally and complement the global tourism trend towards greater environmental awareness and the universal human need to experience nature.