Botswana president buys lodges amid tourism crisis
Under international Covid-19 travel restrictions, inbound tourism to Botswana has collapsed. President Masisi, however, is buying luxury lodges at government expense. By
The first signal – on 9 April – was President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s “acquisition” of a piece of the world-famous Moremi Game Reserve “in the public interest”. A month later the registrar-general bought Tautona Lodge in Ghanzi, reputedly for P58-million (R76-million), which surprised the local council and even the lodge staff.
A wildlife area alongside it was purchased, according to the local The Telegraph newspaper, “for the Directorate of Intelligence and Security to act as its training facility”. The lodge had been owned by the former minister of agriculture and ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) MP for Ghanzi South, Christian de Graaff.
Moremi Game Reserve is in northern Botswana, in the Okavango Delta, which becomes a lush animal habitat during seasonal floods, while Tautona Lodge is a private game reserve near the town of Ghanzi.
“It is shocking that government has unanimously decided to buy [Tautona] despite its pronouncement that the country is in the middle of an economic crisis,” said Ghanzi Councillor Kealeboga Gaebuse. “Since there are other pressing issues for Batswana, we thought priority spending will be made in their direction.”
When challenged in parliament about the purchase, Minister of Presidential Affairs Kabo Neal Morwaeng said the government was acquiring and “setting up hospitality outposts across the country to build an inclusive government closer to the people”. Opposition MPs are still trying to work out what that means.
Writing for Botswana’s online news site Mmegi, Kgosietsile Ngakaagae accused Masisi of planning a “Louis Vuitton paradise resort” in the heart of the Okavango Delta.
“The President is not entitled to any resort, and surely, does not deserve same. Batswana are dying because hospitals have inadequate oxygen supply, while the nation’s wealth is lavished liberally on himself.
“The entertainment industry is on its knees and there is no let-off for the creative arts as yet. The alcohol industry is on its knees and thousands of livelihoods have been completely wiped off. The whole nation is taking a haircut and President Masisi is upgrading to a Louis Vuitton hairstyle.”
The biggest problem – and the reason why setting up “hospitality posts” seems bizarre at this time – is that the country’s tourist industry on which it so heavily relies has collapsed. The UK government travel advisory advises against all but essential travel to the country. The international Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts it more bluntly: “Avoid travel to Botswana.”
Added to the problem is Botswana’s traditional reliance on a high-value, low-volume approach aimed at wealthy international tourists. With Covid-19 and travel restrictions, it’s no longer fit for purpose.
Research by four Botswana-based social scientists published in Tourism Review International in June 2021 estimated that Africa has lost 7.6 million tourist-related jobs since 2019 and US$53-billion in revenue. In Botswana 26,000 people in tourism jobs have become unemployed.
Its focus on international, high-spending tourists over the local market came back to bite it hard when they dried up. This didn’t only hit the conventional tourist industry and high-cost lodges. Communities located in wildlife management areas benefit from user rights over defined concession areas by subleasing to tour operators.
This was done through the Community-Based Natural Resource Management system, which provided an income for 46% of the rural population.
According to the report, the impact of lockdowns on community livelihoods has been astronomical, increasing food insecurity and poverty, posing conservation threats, increased poaching, encroachments by people and their livestock, bushmeat consumption and reduced funding for conservation.
There have also been huge job losses among small, medium and micro enterprises, independent operators such as chefs, professional guides and mokoro (canoe) polers in the Okavango Delta and Chobe River.
In this context, government splurging on high-end properties for seemingly private use by officials is being described as outrageous.
“We had thought,” said Councillor Gaebuse, “that since there are other pressing issues for Batswana, priority spending will be made in their direction. Buying a lodge is not a priority, so in this case government is just trying to economically empower an individual.”
He said there was secrecy in the purchase of Tautona, as the government did not consult the local community. “The procurement will not only benefit De Graaff, we suspect that President Mokgweetsi Masisi will also benefit from this.”
According to Ngakaagae, writing in Mmegi: “Whilst pretending to fight corruption, [Masisi’s] government allocated him a massive government farm, now his personal property. Now he has set aside 21 x 8 kilometres of the nation’s most precious land [in Moremi] for his personal and exclusive enjoyment.
“Your guess is as good as mine, on how much the nation will pay for the President’s pleasure. There will surely be a military contingent dedicated to the place. There will be infrastructural developments costing the nation millions. There will be an airstrip and a helipad. There will be health and communications infrastructure and maintenance costs running into millions, as well as dedicated civil servants manning the place.”
The president’s office was approached for comment, but by the time of publication no answer had been received. Opposition parliamentarians have been told that the office is “not at liberty to disclose documents” concerning the purchase of Tautona.