On my last trip to Chobe National Park, I heard comments from locals related to new controls on tour groups entering the reserves.  For us, the question was whether we were considered an official ‘tour group’.  More importantly, it was hinted that our methods for safari are in some jeopardy going forward.

A little background:  a friend of mine that lives in South Africa organizes our trip.  He basically finds a dozen like minded folks that wants to visit for photography.  He coordinates with the hotels for us to stay together at a small lodge and have our dinners together. We drive up to Kasane together as a caravan and return same. That’s it.  Each person handles any other logistics like vehicle rental, snack foods they wish to carry in, etc.  What time we enter the park and where we go during the day is up to the team in that individual vehicle.  The only exception is that we coordinate one night of the trip to all go out together on a sundowner cruise on a pontoon boat.

Botswana has always operated a little differently than other countries.  The focus has been called ‘low volume, high value’ for a Botswana private camp safari. At a time when there are questions on the rationale behind the government strategy on high-value, low-volume approach to tourism, especially in the protected areas like the Okavango Delta, tour operators and tourists have argued for the latter as it protects the environment.

A leading player in the industry, Wilderness Safaris, and a number of tourists argue that if the country follows other destinations like Kenya, which has opposite strategies, there will be no future for the industry. Sally Anne of Wilderness Safaris, a conservation organisation operating a number of camps in the delta, told Sunday Standard Botswana has been perceived as an expensive destination and revealed they use ‘high-value’ to dispel that argument. “It is the value of the experience and not the cost,” she said.

Mombo Camp run by Wilderness Safaris

Critics of the strategy say operators put profits first and thus locking out a number of domestic tourists in the country as tour operators normally target the upper end of the market, including the rich from the US. However, government has in the past argued that the policy is based on the overriding factor to protect the environment.

Wilderness Safaris is a conservation organization that operates in a number of camp sites in Moremi, the delta and one in CKGR.  Its flagship camps, Mombo and Little Mombo were voted the Number 1 Resort in Africa in the 2009 Condé Nast Traveler (USA) Readers’ Choice Awards. Grant Woodrow, who heads Wilderness Safaris in Botswana, believes that the environment can not sustain high volumes as it is fragile. Woodrow acknowledged the issue of access to the country’s pristine destinations as a contentious issue, but argued ‘the environment can not sustain high volumes’. “These areas will become fewer and fewer,” he said, referring to the pristine destinations around the world.

Now for the problem and the tempest: Thanks to international recognition of the camps as noted above, internet access to information and fantastic television shows lie the BBC’s footage of Botswana on “Planet Earth”, a lot of people are wanted to travel to Botswana to see this fantastic wilderness.  I confess I was/am guilty of that lust and this blog is witness to that fact.  These facts noted, Botswana’s wilds are remotely located with limited cities and towns near the regions.  There are essentially 3 ways to see the wilds of Botswana:

  • Visit the permanent lodges and use their quality guides – highest cost option, but very high quality experience.
  • Participate in ‘mobile (tented)safaris’ and – medium cost, with more focus on game viewing and a little less focus on luxury accomadations
  • So called ‘self-drive safari’ like the adventures I have gone upon – lowest cost alternative.

With all these tourists wanting to see one of the most spectacular areas of Africa, one can see that means that strict rules and regulations had to be drawn up in order to maximize the income out of tourism and to protect the environment at the same time.

The lodges generally are supported by ‘big business’ and big dollars to state their case with the government.  The mobile safari business has a trade organization, HATAB (Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana) that argues that their business creates jobs for the countries citizens.  The independent tourist has less voice.  The tempest is all around the fact that all of these organization wish to grow yet there is a limited ecological wilderness.  So who is to lose?

Johan Knols, in his blog PlanYourSafari.com has written a good summary article on the situation. HIs article was driven by news that one tourism company is now creating a hybrid – mobile safari with semi-permanent campsites.  His conclusion:

If the government sticks to the principle of ‘low-volume-high-cost-tourism’, something has to change and the easiest way to release the pressure on a vulnerable environment is to cut down on the self-drives. The big question is whether the mobile safari industry will be the next victim if the government would have to intervene in the problems of HATAB. Would the company that offers one night safaris get what it wants, than I predict that more mobile safari companies will follow its example. This certainly means that the mobile safari industry also had its longest time and that Botswana will become only a place with lodges for the wealthy and rich. But that might well be in the interest of the government officials who already have a steady finger in the lodge-pie!

Typical accomadations at a mobile safari in Botswana

The mobile tour operators are defending their position.  In a recent article in the Ngama Times, (Edition 495, February 19-26, 2010) the following was reported:

Mobile safari tour operators have spoken out in their defence on why the government should let them continue operating their businesses. The operators acknowledged last week they had been slow to engage the government on the importance of their sector to the tourism industry but said remarks that the sector is solely responsible for congestion and the environmental degradation in the national parks and game reserves is based on “impressions and not facts.”

In December last year at the Hospitality and Tourism Association of Botswana (HATAB) meeting, environment, Wildlife and tourism minister Kitso Mokaila caused a row within the sector when he publicly berated operators and holding them accountable for congestion and the environmental degradation of the Moremi Game Reserve and the Chobe National Park. Mokaila’s remarks then that his ministry was to stop issuing licenses to the sector in a bold monitoring exercise sent shock waves through the mobile sector community.

Last week both sides met to find common ground. HATAB mobile operators representative, Adam Hedges, advised Mokaila to adopt a comprehensive approach including all the lodges, tourists and other contributors to the problem, saying a divisive solution would not help.

He said as the Okavango Delta Management Plan puts emphasis on the need for an objective and a critical review of the entire tourism industry to look at the impact of the mobile, the lodges, hotels and the aviation sectors, the blame should not just be placed at the door of one sector of the industry. He said lodges have more vehicles doing game drives in the parks as compared to the mobile operators. He further explained that in the Chobe alone, mobile safaris use about 30 vehicles for the 10 sites they operate, saying this is less than half the number of game drive vehicles that 4 lodges in Kasane field in the Chobe national park. The mobile representative said during the South African school holidays the number of holidaymakers who drive into the protected areas increases, further increasing congestion on the parks “I stand here as a mobile operator with more than 30 years in the industry. I belong to an association of mobile safari guides that operates throughout Africa and I believe from the bottom of my heart that my business in more environmentally friendly than any other form of tourism in Botswana,” he said. He told the minister that the safari tour operation is the cornerstone within which the tourism industry thrives – “the advantage that Botswana has is its diverse wilderness. You cannot get this in all African countries.’

Hedges said it must be noted that the mobile sector played a major role in taking tourist in to the wilderness. “When we take tourists on safari, the emphasis is on the wilderness experience, it’s about outdoors not the indoors, it’s not about glitz. Ours is about showing the country to its best natural advantages. “We don’t need plunge pools and spas to lure our guests, we just need the wilderness.” He said personalities such as actor Morgan Freeman, Britain’s Prince Harry and Prince William, actor Tom Cruise and many others prefer the mobile safari when they come to Africa, adding that this shows the importance of the mobile safari to any country’s tourism industry. Hedges bemoaned a situation when members of the sector report pirate operations in the parks and these they are not fully investigated by Wildlife authorities. It was suggested that one way the congestion problem could be solved is if the department trained scouts in conjunction with the Botswana Defence Force to man key areas where environmental degradation takes place.

“Such a unit can also check foreign vehicles for proper documentation to curb piracy and other dodgy practices going on in the parks,” he said.

Earlier, Mokaila had indicated that his ministry was concerned about congestion and unlicensed tour operators rooming the parks. After finishing consulting with all those responsible for the problem, his ministry might make some changes – including the number of the operators operating in the parks. “I will not put personal issues before the interest of the country.”

Now you have some understanding of the tempest.  Will the self drive option remain?  I sure don’t know, but hope things remain unchanged.  As a photographer, I want to go often and cannot afford to only use the luxury travel route … unless I recruit 10 people and make it a workshop.

I am a little torn. My experience is primarily Chobe. Regarding self drive (which I do), the only time I have seen ‘heavy tourist traffic’ is in late July on WEEKENDS and only then near the Kasane Gate. Elsewhere, I have never really seen the tourist loading heavy. It seems a weekend quota system on that gate is all that is needed.  I have friends which represent all 3 options for safari discussed.  I know that all of these options can provide an excellent safari experience.  The one that is right for you is really related to you much you want to ‘do your on thing’ and how much you want luxury versus roughing it.

Regarding damage to the environment or harassing of wildlife, nearly all of the times I have seen vehicles off the designated pathways it has been tour groups driving into the bush to get that slightly better tip. Usually in these events they are pressuring the relaxation of a few lions.

It seems Botswana’s ‘advantage’ on preventing excess self drive has been the remoteness of Chobe, Moremi, Kalahari, etc. As more commuter flights fly into Maun or Kasane and as more vehicle rental companies open in these cities, pressure on the game and heavier loading may occur. It seems this trend of increased flights is a) the potential problem and b) a great opportunity for HATAB members to create a good alternative, reasonable price alternative to self drive.