At the Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana (HATAB), Chief Executive Officer Lilly Rakorong is a troubled woman. Her troubles are impossible to hide. She sits for an exclusive interview with The Business Weekly & Review but is unable to fully focus on the interview. She concedes that she is dealing with new regulations that may have far-reaching consequences for the already ailing tourism industry.
Her mobile phone does not stop ringing. Members of HATAB, who are as troubled as she is, are eager to engage with her about finding a solution to the regulations that are already costing them heavily. Effective from 14 February 2022, President Masisi’s government announced that it is basically a crime to enter Botswana when not fully vaccinated. According to a statement issued by Dr Christopher Nyanga, the spokesman at the Ministry of Health and Wellness, all persons entering Botswana should show proof that they have been fully vaccinated, having taken two doses of a two-dose vaccine regimen or a single dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
Further, those who pass the two but are overdue for booster shots are no longer regarded as fully vaccinated, until they have taken the booster shot. Nyanga announced that when a person is not fully vaccinated, they will be required to present a 72-hour negative PCR COVID-19 test result and undergo a free COVID-19 vaccination at the port of entry. It is only after that they will they be allowed into the country.
Alternatively, if there is no proof of being fully vaccinated and no 72-hour negative PCR test result, people will be required to undergo PCR testing at ports of entry at their own cost and where necessary quarantine at their own cost while waiting for results. If the results are negative, they will be allowed into Botswana. If results are positive, they will be allowed to isolate within the district of port of entry at their own cost.
It emerges further that if a person has no proof of being fully vaccinated, is not willing to be vaccinated at the port of entry, has no 72-hour negative PCR test result and is not willing to be tested at their own cost, they will not be allowed entry into Botswana if they are foreigners. If they are citizens, they will be liable to a fine of P5 000 or imprisonment not exceeding one year or both.
These new regulations have come as a shock to Rakorong. As the head of an organisation that leads private sector players into the tourism and hospitality sector, she says she expected some kind of consultation, given that the regulations affect the industry directly. She is dismayed by the fact that travellers to Botswana, especially high-end foreign tourists, will cancel their trips to Botswana in view of these regulations. “We were at a phase where we were experiencing recovery,” she says. “The sector was recording impressive bookings but those bookings are being cancelled as we speak because not everyone wants to be forced to vaccinate.”
Early signs are frightening: Bookings valued at an astronomical P110 million were cancelled between 14 and 21 February 2022. “This was in the space of just one week,” Rakorong says, her forehead furrowing. “We are still busy compiling the data but I can assure you that hundreds of millions in value continue to be lost by the hospitality industry.”
She points out that this translates into loss of jobs and likely closure by some operators unable to sustain their operations. From the beginning the tourism industry has been the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and its regulations. Rakorong notes that in 2020 and 2021, the industry was not making any money as a result of the State of Emergency (SoE) and its concomitant regulations, mainly movement restrictions. She says that high-end tourists chose not to travel to Botswana during the SoE because some travel insurance covers would not be applicable under the SoE. To the tourism industry, it translated into loss of revenue. Bookings were cancelled then and more followed in 2021, leaving operators in the tourism space financially crippled. The Omicron variant also had its fair share of the impact on the tourism industry.
Rakorong says there was hope post the SoE and that motivated by the ease on movement restrictions, bookings were beginning to pile up. Tourism operators were starting to re-employ people who had been laid off as a result of COVID-19 restrictions and companies were projecting better times ahead, which would lead to increased economic activity. But alas, the new regulations are reversing the recovery! Just after the regulations were effected, HATAB undertook a synoptic review to establish what could befall the industry again. “From the 14 to the 21st of February, P110 million worth of cancellations were made,” Rakorong reveals.
Troubled, she notes that international arrivals in Botswana contribute the largest to tourism and that any disruption at ports of entry will result in loss of revenue. She points out that in Europe the vaccine validity period is 270 days and only 180 days in Botswana. This means that a fully vaccinated European may be considered not fully vaccinated in Botswana, which creates inconsistencies. Statistics Botswana has shown that the bulk of tourists are international travellers.
Figures show that during 2017 (latest available data at Statistics Botswana), Botswana received 1, 774, 960 visitors, with 91.4 percent attributable to tourists (overnight visitors) while same day visitors accounted for 8.6 percent (152, 372). Visitors from Zimbabwe account for 33.4 percent while those from South Africa represented 32.9 percent of total visitors during the year.
Interestingly, the national accounts office said most visitors came from Zimbabwe and South Africa, with the two countries contributing 33.4 percent and 32.9 percent respectively of total visitors during the year. Tourists from the top 10 overseas countries, whom Rakorong classifies as high-end travellers, made up 11.4 percent of total tourists during 2017. These tourists came from countries like United States of America (USA) followed by those from the United Kingdom (UK) and Germany.
With the new regulations, however, ease of movement will be wiped out. Rakorong is worried that travellers who choose not to be vaccinated will no longer visit Botswana. The way the tourism industry works is that there are international travel agencies based in places like Europe, the US and Asia which create itineraries for tourists. In the itineraries, they usually add the most preferred destinations like the Okavango and the Chobe in Botswana, the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and outstanding places in Angola and further afield Rwanda.
But there is a catch in that tourists are sensitive to entry barriers and restrictions. They prefer places that prioritise ease of entry. Rakorong says she has been in touch with a number of these travel agencies and established that they have decided to remove Botswana from their itineraries because of the latest regulations for ports of entry into the country. She has also established that some of the cancelled bookings were diverted to countries like Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola where travel restrictions are not as harsh and visitors are not required to vaccinate. “The tourism industry the world over is in the recovery phase and places which are easily accessible will recover more quickly,” she points out. “In essence, we are losing business to them.”
Rakorong is also worried by the fact that while Botswana claims pride in the unique nature of its tourism product, the wilderness and the wildlife in it, a point of fact is that the country does not hold a monopoly to such wildlife and wilderness experiences because Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and many other countries are similarly endowed.
For this and other reasons, the new restrictions will cause recovery in Botswana’s tourism industry to decline, and so will its contribution to GDP, which is second after mining, through aspects like employment and revenue generation. At some point, Botswana’s tourism industry remained one of the biggest employers and a significant player in the national economy. According to a research paper compiled by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and titled Travel & Tourism Economic Impact Botswana, the tourism industry employed at least 25,000 people in 2016 in Botswana.
WTTC is a forum for business leaders in the travel and tourism industry through which they speak with one voice to governments and international bodies. WTTC works to raise awareness of travel and tourism as one of the world’s largest economic sectors, supporting 313 million jobs and generating 10.4 percent of the world gross domestic product (GDP), at the time.
According to the Council, the travel and tourism industry generated 25,000 direct jobs in 2016, the equivalent of 2.6 percent of total employment then. This was forecast to grow by 6.8 percent in 2017 to 27,000. The statistics cover employees in hotels, travel agents, airlines and other passenger transportation services (excluding commuter services). It also includes activities of the restaurant and leisure industries directly supported by tourists. At the time, the Council predicted that by 2027, travel and tourism in Botswana will account for 43,000 jobs directly in Botswana – an increase of 4.8 percent per year over the next 10 years.
The total contribution of travel and tourism to employment, including wider effects from investment, the supply chain and induced income impacts, was 68,500 jobs in 2016 (7.1 percent of total employment). It was forecast to rise by 3.7 percent in 2017 to 71,000 jobs (7.3 percent of total employment in the country). By 2027, travel and tourism was forecast to support 100,000 jobs (8.9 percent of total employment), which is an increase of 3.5 percent annually over the period.
The total contribution of travel and tourism to GDP was P17.7 billion in 2016 (10.9 percent of GDP). This was expected to grow by 6.5 percent to P18.9 billion in 2017, the equivalent of 11.2 percent of GDP. As a result of COVID-19 effects, WTTC has recalled these predictions. Infact, they expect the tourism industry growth in Botswana to slow down, which will have devastating effects on the economy.
Further, the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) anticipates a decline in tourist arrivals, a huge blow for the country whose economy depends much on nature-based tourism. WTO says the disease spread in Botswana has resulted in far reaching socio-economic and environmental repercussions. These include revenue losses, business closures, retrenchments, loss of opportunities for financing community development projects, and wildlife straying beyond their normal ranges posing a threat to life and increasing chances of poaching. Rakorong says they have engaged the government on the new regulations and proposed that vaccinations should never be forced. In her view, it makes sense to take a PCR test because is a tried and tested method.