Page last updated at 18:17 GMT, Thursday, 4 November 2010

Can mass tourism replace Botswana's fading diamonds?

By Fiona Foster
Presenter, Fast Track


The Okavango Delta to the Kalahari: How water shapes Botswana's landscape

Botswana is the world's biggest producer of diamonds and an economic success story in Africa - but some experts fear that in 20 years time its reserves may be exhausted.

Tourism is now becoming increasingly important as the country anticipates a time when diamonds can no longer provide 50% of its annual revenue.

Botswana has built a reputation on high-end luxury safaris for the wealthy but diversification has become the new mantra - as making more money from tourism is seen as the only way of plugging the gap minerals would leave.

So the government has come up with a master plan to expand and develop the tourist sector to attract a wider range of visitors to the country.

Ilan Kaplan shows how rough diamonds are turned into the final product

Under two million inhabitants share this vast land with one of the biggest congregations of animals on the planet and as a result, the country offers some of the most spectacular wildlife viewing in Africa in pristine natural habitats.

What it doesn't offer at the moment are many options for the budget conscious traveller. Instead, Botswana has become a byword for romantic safari-chic.

This low volume/high cost policy was deliberately introduced in Botswana in the 1990s when it was felt that some of the country's wilderness was in danger of being choked by overcrowding.

Now the race is on to find ways to develop the tourism sector, but the challenge will be to do that without spoiling what they already have.

"There is a balancing act between temptation to over-commercialise and make a lot more revenue today when the demand is high," says Myra Sekgororoane of the Botswana Tourist Organisation who questions how many tourists the country can commercially and environmentally sustain.

Bush hairdryers

At the top end of the market the emphasis is on sustainability.

Cathy Kays and her husband David, a fourth-generation Botswana national, own the exclusive Jao Camp in the Okavango Delta.

Having come from a background of being so poor, the infrastructure is not in place for us to open up all the areas we'd like to
Onkokame Kitso Mokaila
Minister for Tourism

The Kays are passionate about protecting the environment but have found that over the years guests' expectations of life in the middle of the bush have gradually increased to include mini-bars and hairdryers.

"It really was an issue for us because we didn't generate enough power to be able to use hairdryers," explains Mrs Kays.

"That took us about two or three years before we found the ideal solar solution. Then we could put up solar panels that are able to power hairdryers, mini fridges and an electric kettle in the room."

Under the terms of the concession of 60,000 hectares they have been granted, the Kays are allowed to accommodate just 48 guests across their four properties.

The government says those restrictions will remain in place because the plan is not to suddenly flood areas like the Okavango with new lodges, but instead to encourage tourism in areas where there is room for growth.

"It's about changing and diversifying the product to allow the mid-range and lower-range tourist to come," explains Minister for Tourism Onkokame Kitso Mokaila.


"We have sand dunes in the Kalahari that we have not exploited to date. We have the Tuli site we haven't exploited fully. We have other cultural sites that we haven't exploited fully. Those allow other market sections to come into play."

The Kays also believe there is plenty of scope for heritage and cultural tourism outside the prime safari areas.

"This is a huge country and very little of it is used for tourism at this stage," says Mrs Kays.

"Tourists concentrate on the high game areas but there's so much else in terms of cultural tourism".

Community tourism

If the government's plan is to succeed then local people and communities will have to be brought on board.

That is why funds and loan schemes have been established to help local entrepreneurs start businesses of their own.

That is how Monica Kgail first started Waterlilly Lodge and her mobile safari business in Chobe National Park.

We've built a shop, and telecommunications so we can access the internet
Frank Limbo
Community project manager

"My market is the southern market - it's affordable, it's local and international," says Ms Kgail, adding that she attracts tourists who cannot afford Botswana's luxury hotels.

It is not just enterprising individuals but whole communities who are being urged to get involved in tourism.

In Kavimba in Chobe, five villages have joined together to lease a land concession on which they have built a lodge and run safaris.

They have been so successful they are now building a second lodge and have seen first-hand what the fruits of tourism can do for their community.

"We've managed to purchase tractors and farm implements to help farmers plough fields," says Frank Limbo, manager of a community project in Chobe.

"We've built a shop, and telecommunications so we can access the internet - so during the last 10 years quite a lot has happened in terms of progress."

But the obstacles on the way to opening up the country are considerable.

The capital Gaborone boasts a brand new airport but hardly any international flights, which makes getting to the country expensive.

According to Mr Mokaila, limited road and air access is a challenge.

"Obviously being a vast country as we are, and having come from a background of being so poor, the infrastructure is not in place for us to open up all the areas we'd like to," he says.

Add to that a call from Survival International for tourists to boycott Botswana because of the unresolved dispute over Bushmen being denied access to water and it is clear that the master plan has some way to go.

Nonetheless, the government says it is determined to make it work without environmental damage.

"It's about maximisation. You want to make a good return on whatever you've got, but don't cross the line," says Mr Mokaila.

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