Wild luxury for the well-heeled tourist

Fred Bridgland

High-value, low impact and sustainable tourism is intended to preserve Botswana’s natural wonders into the future, but it comes at a price

Athough visited by relatively few people, Botswana is one of the most remarkable and breathtaking countries in Africa. It abounds in wildlife in a variety of environments, and its unblemished night skies, with constellations dipping and wheeling overhead, untouched by light pollution, are truly mesmerising.

“It is probably the emptiness that works the magic,” says Alexander McCall Smith, author of the best-selling No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of books set in Botswana. “There are few towns of any size, and those that do exist are separated by long miles of thin road.”

Botswana straddles the Tropic of Capricorn and stretches from the meandering, tree-lined waterways of pure, clear water in the 15,500 km2 Okavango Delta in the north to the semi-arid savannahs of the Kalahari Desert in the south. The government has designated more than 17 percent of its landmass as national parks, which contain wildlife more bountiful than anywhere else in Africa and which offer a huge range of experiences to tourists. A further 20 percent has been set aside as wildlife management areas, where conservation and limited sustainable hunting go hand-in-hand.

With tourism growing at an annual rate of 5 percent, Botswana is developing its other parks to ease pressure on Okavango and Chobe, and is beginning to appeal to a broader range of visitors

The tourist experience in Botswana is free from the kind of vehicle masses that congregate around game in Kenya’s national parks and in South African safari destinations, such as the Kruger National Park. The Botswana government’s strategy is one of ‘high value, low impact and sustainable’ tourism. Even in the two most popular wildlife destinations – the Okavango Delta, where mighty rivers that rise in the Angolan highlands gradually seep into the Kalahari sands, and the nearby Chobe National Park, along the course of a Zambezi River tributary and home to the densest wild elephant population in Africa – no more than two or three vehicles at a time gather at kills or other natural occurrences. Camps are small, intimate and predominantly luxurious.

Some Botswanan analysts are uneasy with the domination of the luxury end of the market by foreign companies with headquarters in South Africa, the UK, other parts of Europe and North America: these companies own or part-own more than 80 percent of the concessions in the Okavango and Chobe.

Most of the money for these expensive safaris, featuring helicopter trips and fine dining, is handled outside Botswana, with the local economy retaining less than one-third of the total fees paid by rich foreign high-rollers. Consequently, new efforts are being made to force foreign companies to submit their accounts to local auditors as part of the price for their concessions.

Professor Joseph Mbaiwa, of Botswana University’s Department of Environmental Sciences and the Harry Oppenheimer Okavango Research Centre, says the Okavango/ Chobe ownership pattern adds up to “a kind of internal colonialism”, and adds: “Many local people assume the Delta, which sustained their livelihoods for centuries, has been usurped from them and has been transferred, at least temporarily, to foreign tourism operators.”

With tourism growing at an annual rate of 5 percent, Botswana is developing its other parks and beginning to appeal to a broader range of tourists to ease pressure on the Okavango and Chobe and the controversy they attract. New camps are appearing in the Kalahari Trans-Frontier Park, a so-called ‘peace park’ that straddles the border between South Africa and Botswana in the south-west, and the Tuli Block, just north of the Limpopo River. Alternative and cheaper niche experiences – like birding, archaeology, fishing and a range of outdoor activities – are being offered by new, small, Botswana-based companies, with assistance from the government.

In the centre of the country lies the vast 52,800 km2 Central Kalahari Game Reserve that is now being opened to tourists for the first time. It is a vast stretch of open plains and ancient sand, which receives intense summer rains and is home to a rich variety of animal life, including lion, cheetah, gemsbok and springbok. The CKGR has, however, been a focus of international controversy as a result of the government’s decision to expel the Bushmen, or San people, from their traditional hunting grounds to make way for tourism projects and surveys for diamond reserves. A limited number of Bushmen have been allowed back into the CKGR, mainly to act as guides in the tourism lodges, but their old way of life has effectively been destroyed. In the CKGR, the cult of celebrity has had a somewhat negative effect for Botswana, as big names from the acting world, including Joanna Lumley, Sophie Okonedo and Gillian Anderson, have joined the campaign to boycott Botswana’s diamonds and its tourist industry.

Perhaps the ultimate boost will come when plans are realised for the Okavango Zambezi cross-border peace park, covering 285,000 km2 of Botswanan, Namibian, Zambian, Zimbabwean and Angolan territory: it will encompass swathes of gamerich land occupied by guerrillas during Angola’s civil war. The park will be the biggest in the world and restore huge traditional migration routes of elephant, zebra and wildebeest. After further touches to the plan, it could one day become the most spectacular wildlife reserve and eco-tourist destination in the world.

About the author:

Fred Bridgland is an author. He formerly worked as a correspondent in Southern Africa.


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