As Coronavirus fears squeeze tourism, Botswana safari industry shed jobs26 March 2020
By SOLOMON TJINYEKA
On a normal day, Maun International Airport, a gateway to the iconic Okavango Delta, sees hundreds of passengers, but this has changed in the past few weeks. The airport is almost deserted with only few tourists, suggesting that the Coronavirus known also as Covid-19 may be taking a bite out of the tourism sector.
Botswana has not yet recorded a case of Covid-19, but the impact of this global pandemic is already weighing heavily on the tourism sector and rippling through Ngamiland, the heartbeat of the country tourism. As a key economic sector, tourism is one of Botswana’s main source of foreign income earners.
Industry leaders say the spread of pandemic globally is affecting the local tourism industry as business is grounding to a halt due to fear of travel.
Botswana tourism is approaching its peak season, but the pandemic has borne much brunt on the interconnected Southern African tourism destination including Chobe and Okavango. Local tourism mobile operators who depend on tourists have lost millions of Pula from booking cancellations and some have suspended their operations for the next coming months.
African Big 5 Tours and Safaris a Maun based company has seen its fortunes crumble in the past few days. All its clients cancelled or postponed their 2020 bookings for next year since the outbreak early this year. The company lost close to P2million as a result. According to Mompati Kadisa, the company’s director the situation is bad for tourism business. He said with little activity and no income he might lay off all 12 workers. “[At the moment] we are only dealing with tourist who are departing to their countries. There are no new arrivals,” Kadisa said
For Savuti Khwai Linyanti (SKL), a tourism company with four camp areas within the Moremi Game Reserve and also operates Crocodile Camp Safari and Spar in Maun the pandemic caused untold miseries. The company’s 149 employees are in limbo. The company has close four camps because of bookings cancellations. In other operations such as at the Crocodile Camp and Spar, the company has reduced staff by half. The company’s Chief Executive Officer Reaboka Mbulawa said because the company depends on international tourists, they will end up losing millions of Pula. He said of the 149 employees 80 will be given paid and unpaid leave while the company assess the impact of the pandemic. This he said is a temporary arrangement and may change depending on what’s happening around the world with regard to the pandemic.
Also, Mbulawa explains that most tourism businesses operate on bank loans which needs to be serviced monthly in addition to other expenses such as staff salaries and other bills. He stresses the government the government should step in to save the industry from total collapse. Failure to do so, he says the sector will collapse and unemployment in the region will skyrocket.
An employee at local hotel, Thamalakane River Lodge in Maun who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of victimization revealed they have received letters of retrenchment and their employment will be terminated by April 17th this year. The employee decried that he has also been told by another potential employer in the tourism that they are not hiring until the situation normalizes.
The company refused to discuss the matter with the media but confirmed that it is true they are retrenching. A letter written to one of the lodge’s employee dated 17 March 2020 titled “Notice to Retrenchment, reduced hours as a result of Covid 19 and closure of borders” informs the employee that the company will be parting ways with staff members due to financial pressures resulting from effects of the pandemic.
According to Joseph Mbaiwa, Professor of Tourism Studies at the Okavango Research Institute (ORI) in Maun, Covid-19 pandemic is going to hit the global travel and tourism very hard. Mbaiwa highlighted that Ngamiland and Chobe districts rely on tourism. About 95 percent of people who live in these two districts directly or indirectly rely on tourism, said Mbaiwa. He said with the industry hard hit by the pandemic, many people in the region will fall on hard times.
He advised the government to come up with mitigation measures to address the situation and save jobs. He suggested that the government could waive some fees and taxes by tourism companies to keep them afloat. Maun West Member of Parliament Goretetse Kekgonegile has called on the government to shut-down the country but at the same time dip into the country’s foreign reserves to rescue the industry and save jobs.
Botswana Tourism Organization, a regulatory authority has not yet responded to questions by INK.