Tourism in Botswana is a fast-growing sector, accounting for 12 per cent of GDP, a figure the government plans to increase significantlyYour tourism sector has been growing at 14 per cent annually for the past eight years and contributes to 12 per cent of the country’s GDP. The sector also currently employs 20,000 people. How critical is tourism in terms of Botswana’s economic development, and also in the context of the recent desire to diversify?
Obviously diversification for any economy that is dependent on one thing is the key. We only have tourism and agriculture that we can look at the moment, so tourism is obviously the easier one to do. As a result, tourism is at the heart of the government’s diversification program, purely because tourism captures all other sectors of the economy, including transport, food and business. It is also the only sector employing the most people in the economy. Tourism is so important.
Could you please give a brief overview of the sector and your vision for the next five years, in line with the 2016 vision?
Looking back to where tourism started when the Tourism Act came in 1992, it shows that it is a relatively new sector in the economy in terms of people taking part in it. One of the opportunities I see is how to get citizens to play a role in tourism. We do not want to shut out foreign direct investment (FDI), because that is always key.
Secondly, tourism is currently centred in the north of the country and is very much wilderness based around the Okovango Delta which is the most beautiful part of the world. But there is potential elsewhere in the country.
The government wanted a high-value, low-volume industry purely because of the eco-system around the Okovango Delta. But we do have some areas which are suitable for high-volume low-value tourism. It is a question of looking at how else we can diversify the tourism product itself, away from wilderness to other things.
If tourism is not properly managed, it could have an effect on the fragile ecosystem. How do you keep the delicate balance between making the most out of the industry for the benefit of your people whilst preserving the eco-system?
Low-volume and high-value is surely a conservation and preservation approach. But as you know, my ministry is called Environment, Wildlife and Tourism and I always tell people that this is because we know that the environment comes first. If you can manage and conserve the environment, then you will naturally have the wildlife that comes with it and then your tourism will be naturally sustainable as well. Conservation is key here – we will not do anything to compromise conservation. The sustainability of tourism is dependent on the environment surviving.
Botswana has free-ranging wildlife, so we differentiate ourselves from other countries purely because of that. We are one of the very few countries that has free-ranging wildlife, so it is important to preserve that.
How do you ensure that mining companies carry out their activities with a strong commitment towards preserving wildlife, not only during activities but after extraction?
We have the Environmental Impact Assessment Act (EIA) and that pre-determines what happens when development comes to any area. As we are a developing country, if we discover a mine in a very fragile area, the debate is to what is more important. If the decision is to go with the mine because from a revenue point of view it will add value to the livelihoods of the people, then the EIA indicates how it should be done. Finally, it indicates how it is restored.
Deforestation is also a major environmental problem for Botswana. Could you give us a little insight into your policies to prevent that?
That is probably one of our greatest challenges. I would like to start by saying that 30 per cent of the total land mass of Botswana is either a game reserve, protected area, forest reserve or a wildlife management area. But be that as it may, people have always depended on living off the land for example for energy and housing… trees were being cut down. In 2002 when this ministry was formed, it was out of the realisation that things were going a bit too far and we needed a ministry that would deal with things like deforestation. Botswana is a signatory for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and most of the multilateral environmental agreements that are universal. We are centred upon restoring our forests and forestation. Right now we have a target of planting half a million trees a year. We provide seedlings of indigenous trees for free. We have left the exotic trees to the private sector, as the government specialises in indigenous trees.
Moving onto public-private partnerships and FDI, private sector involvement is going to be crucial when it comes to speeding up the development and expertise. You have first-hand experience in the private sector. Could you please tell us about the importance of a good dialect between the private sector?
When I joined the ministry in 2004, one of the things I brought to the ministry was that very dialogue. I started a meeting called the PITSO.
We have a PITSO in the tourism sector where we engage with the private sector regarding issues that relate to their businesses and what government is not doing to facilitate business. We have that annually. It has grown so big that we have had to split it up into different tourism enterprises such as travel agents, hotel people, bed and breakfast people and so on. That is key to successful tourism in Botswana because that dialogue is on-going.
Do you know of any incentives that are being offered in the tourism industry?
Let me also say that it is not BEDIA alone. We have what we call the Botswana Tourism Organisation that also deals with development in the tourism industry. The incentives are basically what Botswana offers as a country. We do not have immediate incentives. Any businessman goes into an area based on the viability of his own project, so if he finds that it is viable, he will come. We have a very stable government as you know. We do not have foreign exchange control and we probably have one of the best tax regimes. We in tourism have introduced indefinite licenses, which mean that if you apply for a business and you are awarded a license, it is indefinite. This is purely because we had a problem with renewing licenses every year, which is very bureaucratic.
How do you ensure that in such diverse locations and so many people providing services that the quality of the service is what tourists are expecting?
Three or 4 years ago we came up with grading. The Tourism Act states that if you are licensed, 12 months after being licensed you must obtain a minimum of one star. If you do not attain that minimum of one star, then you will have your license taken away from you.
Secondly, areas in Botswana lend themselves differently. There are some areas where you cannot be less than so many stars because of ecological sensitivity for example.
We would like to know a little more about you as the leader of this organisation. How does your experience in the private sector shape you?
I think it shaped me well. Management is key. I am an engineer, and the issues regarding the environment are very technical as far as I am concerned. I think engineers are the best businessmen. Engineering is about discipline - you cannot get things wrong. If you do, people are going to die.