The wildlife-based tourism industry in the Okavango Delta and Chobe brings financial and conservation benefits even though a significant amount of revenue leaks outside the country. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 resulted in revenue and job losses, leading to negative impacts on livelihoods.
Safari tour operators suffered declines in bookings while some had no bookings at all. International travel restrictions imposed on travellers from the most affected countries of Europe and North America spelt trouble for local tourism as it led to the cancellation of pre-paid bookings and demands for refunds. Accommodation facilities in the Okavango Delta and Chobe regions were mostly hard hit as most of these facilities rely on international tourists who visit Botswana to enjoy the wildlife and scenic beauty of the area. These international nature-based tourists enjoy tourism activities such as game drives, boat cruises and mekoro.
The closing down of international and regional ports of entry curtailed tourists’ arrivals in northern Botswana. For example, prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, Botswana received a total of 1,830,274 visitors in 2018 of which 90.4% of these visitors or 1,654,638) were international and regional overnight tourists.
In 2019 the amount of revenue generated by tourists spending was approximately BP11,860.9 million (US$1,100.3 million. However, by 2020 when the country was at the COVID-19 pick, an estimated P9,983,391,453.50 (US$868, 555, 056.451) in revenue losses was experienced due to the cancellation of bookings. This loss had significant consequences on community livelihoods especially those in Ngamiland and Chobe Districts.
The COVID-19 pandemic happened when the Government of Botswana was putting most of the resources and focus on attracting international tourists that visit the Okavango Delta and Chobe regions.
For example, the international airports in northern Botswana especially Maun International Airport and Kasane International Airport were constructed to support international tourists. In addition, the communication network such as tarred roads and construction of the Kazungula Bridge and Mohembo Bridge are all meant to support international tourism.
Government has gone further to establish Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve not only to protect the wildlife resources but also to promote the wildlife-based tourism industry. Human resources such as the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) anti-poaching Unit and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks officers have also been deployed by the Botswana Government to ensure the promotion of the wildlife-based industry.
The implications of COVID-19 include the fact that it provided the tourism sector with opportunities to adapt, innovate and exploit new avenues of operation. For example, there has been concerted efforts to target the local market or domestic tourism. Promoting domestic tourism is now perceived to sustain the tourism sector, save jobs, and offset some of the revenue lost due to reductions in international travel.
Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, domestic tourism in Botswana was neglected. Finally, the outbreak of COVID-19 suggests that Botswana needs to diversify her tourism product to consider the needs of both domestic and regional markets so that the focus is not just on international nature-based tourism and international clientele. In so doing resilience and sustainability can be achieved when there is an outbreak of such pandemics.