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Wednesday, August 11, 1999 Published at 17:28 GMT 18:28 UK

World: Africa

Botswana's villagers fight for tourist dollars

The wilderness of Okavango attracts thousands of visitors

By Africa Correspondent Jane Standley

Ever since he was a boy, Osimilwe Tshubelo has known the waters of the Okavango.

Jane Standley takes a river safari in the Okavango Delta
Like every child of the Delta, poling a traditional mokoro canoe came as naturally as walking. He knows the secrets of this rare wetlands ecosystem.

"This is a good place," he says.

"I like the Delta because we get fish here - fish, birds, and lots of trees. When it starts to rain the Delta is very, very beautiful."

[ image:  ]
The Okavango Delta is a remarkable expanse of 15,000 square kilometres of flood plains, islands and lagoons.

It formed when the Okavango River hit the sands of the Kalahari Desert.

As the water spread out over the desert floor, it formed one of the largest inland deltas in the world, a wilderness of thousands of different species of birds, animals and plantlife.

Osimilwe has now begun sharing his vast fund of knowledge about the land he grew up in with foreign visitors, as a member of a unique community trust which has taken control of its own rich resources.

Tourism lifeline

In areas like this, where jobs are scarce, tourism has been a lifeline. Across Botswana, about two in five people work in the holiday industry.

[ image: A telephone line made all the difference]
A telephone line made all the difference
But most of the jobs are in the big tourist game lodges. The Trust, by contrast, runs its own tourism operation, providing not just employment for local people but also an investment in a small business.

The members of the Trust have had to learn from scratch how to make their tiny tourism venture work.

A telephone line - rare in this remote area of northern Botswana - has made all the difference.

It brings in bookings, and helps the Trust to cope with the complicated bureaucracy so that it can secure hard-to-get permits to operate and expand.

[ image: Osilimwe offers cheap, no frills tours]
Osilimwe offers cheap, no frills tours
Osilimwe's tours are cheap, with few frills. But they're finding favour with visitors who can't and don't want to pay top dollars to big safari outfits.

"Anything that allows rural people to have an income, keep some of the young people here instead of heading off to the capital city, that's a good thing," enthuses John Auffrey, one of Osilimwe's customers.

But the future isn't all guaranteed. Osimilwe hasn't yet got enough tourist bookings to give all of the Trust's 70 members work every day.

High income, low impact

The vast majority of tourists who come to the Okavango Delta are extremely well-heeled.

[ image: Tourist lodges charge in hundreds of dollars]
Tourist lodges charge in hundreds of dollars
The government has an official policy of high-income, low-impact tourism that means a relatively small industry brings in an estimated $50m or more in foreign currency each year.

The foreign-run lodges most tourists stay in do not quote their prices in local currency, but in dollars and pounds - several hundred for each night in their exclusive and luxurious surroundings.

Against financial giants like these, fledgling outfits like the Okavango Community Trust pale into insignificance.

[ image: Okavango: back in the control of local people]
Okavango: back in the control of local people
But although the Trust may not have the cash to compete against the lodges, its very existence is a beacon of hope for the local people.

For the first time, the people of the Delta are in charge of the way its priceless beauty is shown to foreign visitors.

It is a low-key start, but the popularity of such small-scale tours is growing.

The people of the Delta have begun to take back control of the land they have lived in for centuries.

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