Government plans to lease out eight lots along the Chobe River front inside Chobe National Park for construction of lodges with a combined total of 400 rooms. An expression of interest that detailing these was recently issued out.
But ecologists and conservationists are concerned that this will choke the park with gentrification and human traffic, and thus defeat the entire conservation principle, scare wildlife away and defeat the government’s own low-volume, high-income tourism policy. In an interview with The Business Weekly & Review, the Director of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), Dr Kabelo Senyatso, has confirmed that there are eight lots, each permitting “a facility with a maximum of 50 rooms and a maximum of 75 beds at each site”.
These facilities will be built along the Chobe riverfront inside the Chobe National Park. The maximum 75 beds for each facility potentially means 600 people at peak times, which is the population size of many hamlets around the world. The Chobe National Park is located in the northeastern part of Botswana and straddles the Chobe River. The park is the second largest in Botswana and is known for its superb game viewing all year round because it has some of the largest populations of game on the African continent in both diversity and numbers.
DWNP, which is under the Ministry of the Environment, Natural Resource Conservation and Tourism (MENT), is tasked with management of wildlife and fish and aquatic resources in Botswana. Management of all Wildlife Conservation Areas (Wildlife Management Areas, Game Reserves and National Parks) is guided by the Wildlife Conservation and National Parks Act (Chapter 38:01) of 1992. Section 6 (d & e) of the Act provides for economic opportunities for investment by individuals, companies and consortia in the form of hospitality enterprises and related activities.
According to the Expression of Interest (EOI) issued by the government a month ago, it is against this background that DWNP undertook to identify eight sites for potential development into tourism enterprises inside Chobe National Park that may be leased out to companies and consortia domiciled in Botswana and are 100 percent citizen owned. MENT, therefore, invited 100 percent citizen-owned companies and consortia registered with the Company and Intellectual Property Authority (CIPA) to submit proposals for development and operation of tourism sites for a lease period of fifty years. The companies should have tourism licences from the Department of Tourism which have been in existence at least two years and in the case of consortia, they should have at least one company with a tourism licence that has been in existence for the past two years or more.
There are eight sites measuring three hectares each along the Chobe riverfront inside the park located two kilometres from each other between Ihaha Wildlife Camp to Kasika on offer. However, ecologists and even eco-tourism operators see this as a decision that is likely to reverse the gains of the tourism industry and compromise the conservation principles that have ensured that the Chobe National Park remains a highly-exclusive and respected world heritage site.
A group calling itself the Concerned Stakeholders (of the) Chobe District has sprung into existence and has written (letter dated 7 March 2022) to MENT, DWNP as well as other authorities opposing the planned development on the Chobe river front inside the park. They believe that eight lodges situated in areas that see huge volumes of wildlife traffic and which currently form a core attraction for safari tourism (and all the spinoff benefits of that attraction) is a clear threat to wildlife. The group believes that wildlife corridors will be impinged upon and human-wildlife conflict will increase, necessitating fences for mitigation. They also believe wildlife behaviour will be negatively affected, leading to increases in dangerous encounters with people.
The pressure group says loss of up to eight kilometres of wildlife viewing roads (in fenced off lodge sites), and a further eight kilometres of interrupted wildlife corridors – which is what it estimates will result – in a park with an already limited road network will further degrade tourists’ wildlife experience that is already under severe crowding pressure. “The impact of increasing an already high traffic volume by an estimated minimum of 50 game viewing vehicles will be devastating to the quality of the tourist experience and will certainly change wildlife behaviour and distribution,” the group states in the letter.
A primary concern of the Concerned Stakeholder of the Chobe District is that the government’s decision is a total U-turn on the existing tourism policy that led to Botswana being rated among the world’s best tourism destinations. The tourism industry is regulated by the Ministry of the Environment, Natural Resources, Conservation and Tourism while the Department of Tourism (DoT) is tasked with the day-to-day administration and regulation of the tourism industry. DoT falls under the supervision of the Tourism Industry Licensing Board which is tasked with the licensing of tourism enterprises. The Board meets as often as is necessary to evaluate applications and to make determinations.
Responsibility for the grading and classification of all tourism enterprises licensed under the Tourism Act is the responsibility of the Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO). Further, the Botswana Bureau of Standards (BoBS) sets guidelines, standards and rules for the grading of all tourism enterprises. In developing a new tourism enterprise, the owner would need to ensure that the proposed grading of the establishment meets these requirements. By bringing in operators with an extra 400 rooms, some players argue that the move contravenes the tried and tested policy of high-value, low-impact.
In the interview with Dr Senyatso, The Business Weekly & Review sought to know what motivated the government to decide to lease out new concessions inside Chobe National Park. In answer, Dr Senyatso cited the Revised Tourism Policy of 2021 that aims to promote new tourism business opportunities for Batswana. It is to that end that this Expression of Interest under discussion directly is restricted to 100 percent citizen-owned companies and consortia. “Secondly,” he explained, “the Ministry of the Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism is desirous of facilitating greater economic contribution by the country’s protected areas, which cover nearly 40 percent of the land mass. As a direct result of this, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks has been opening up business opportunities in Botswana’s protected areas, such as the recent advertisement of campsites in Khutse Game Reserve, CKGR and Kalaharai Transfrontier Park.”
He added that before the latest development, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks had finalised a Management Plan for Chobe National Park that identified untapped potential for more accommodation within the park. The Expression of Interest, he said, is one way to better use the capacity that exists within this park that exceeds 10,600 km2. “The Chobe National Park is not a heritage site (but) rather a wildlife protected area,” Dr Senyatso noted. “The development of the Management Plan involved extensive consultations as well as extensive analysis, including on ecological aspects, and the proposed developments are within the ecological limits that the park can sustain.”
The Business Weekly & Review asked if 400 more rooms along the Chobe riverfront cannot lead to congestion in the park and more wildlife-human conflict. In response, Dr Senyatso said the current Expression of Interest represents the only proposed development along the Chobe River, with the Management Plan providing for opportunities for further developments in other parts of the park that are currently under-utilised. He emphasised that the Management Plan has deliberate actions that will mitigate congestion. Opening new routes, incentivising investors and users who utilise particular sections of the park, assuring water provision within parts of the park where such infrastructure is required, and creating new tourism routes to link the Chobe National Park with neighbouring Forest Reserves and Community Conservation Areas are among these measures, he said.
But what about some conservationists’ concern that congestion in the park could drive wildlife away and thus defeat Botswana’s conservation efforts the country’s low-volume, high-value tourism policy? Dr Senyatso said the Management Plan recognises several zones ranging from high intensity zones, medium-intensity zones and remote zones to wilderness zones. The Chobe River front is the only high intensity zone. According to Dr Senyatso, this zonation provides for ample space for wildlife to use the more than 10,600km2 park and sustaining the high-end tourism product in Chobe National Park into the future. He noted that the Vision of the Chobe National Park Management Plan – which he said will soon be launched – is that “by 2026, Chobe National Park will provide core wildlife refuge areas and viable linkages within and between northern Botswana’s ecosystems and the broader southern African landscape for the benefit of Botswana and global conservation”.
The Low volume, High-Value Policy and the state of tourism in Botswana
From a time distant in the past, tourism in Botswana has developed from a very small scale where it contributed only a small percentage of GDP and was characterised by South African visitors who often camped and brought very little economic benefit to Botswana. Much has changed and today the contribution to GDP has grown significantly. Specifically, the contribution to GDP has increased from 13 percent in 2008 to 21 percent in 2017 and 19 percent in the first quarter of 2018. This can be compared to the contribution of mining to GDP that has been on a steady decline, from 25 percent in 2008 to present levels of 19 percent in 2018.
The focus of tourism in Botswana is known to have been predominantly wildlife, which is mainly concentrated in the well marketed destinations of the Okavango and Moremi regions as well as the Chobe National Park. Much of the revenue tends to be from tented accommodation in the exclusive destinations of the Okavango and Moremi regions and the Chobe, which price in USD and attract affluent travellers under the high-value, low-volume policy of the government. Apart from the five-star Chobe Game Lodge situated in Chobe National Park, there are no permanent structure-type lodges in any of the parks and game reserves.
Typically, guests stay for three to four nights. If visits are longer, it is because the guests go to two or more camps on the same visit, especially if these are under a common management.