Wilderness Safaris release 95% staff
The tourism industry is on the verge of collapse. This follows the closure of borders and the consequent ceasing of operations because of the State of Emergency (SOE) as well as the booze ban. Business owner’s express devastation at the extension of the SOE, the government also stopped the wage subsidy from the COVID-19 Relief Fund and local companies continue to struggle. Some of the views from the business owners are that the SOE is an opportunity to introduce a KAZA visa to ease travel in the area. The future of many businesses in the tourism sector looks uncertain as Botswana and the rest of the world contend with the COVID-19 virus. Staff Writer MPHO MATSHEDISO reports as unemployment in the Ngamiland District, which is Botswana’s tourism Mecca, hits an all-time high with Wilderness Safaris, a leading tourism outfit, releasing approximately 95 percent of it employees.
In an interview with The Botswana Gazette this week, Brett MacDonald, owner of Flames of Africa, said it is difficult to get travel insurance during the state of emergency (SOE). “However, people had not been travelling whether there was SOE or not or whether they had travel insurance because the pandemic had already made the business situation worse,” he said.
MacDonald argued that the alcohol ban might have affected the enjoyment of tourism. “Alcohol consumption should also be kept in moderation,” he said. “People are there to enjoy the beauty of the surroundings.”
Furthermore, MacDonald argued that this is a perfect opportunity to make Kasane the tourism hub. “I think people are going to want to view wildlife,” he said. “Can you imagine if Kasane was to become the tourism hub like Johannesburg where people would be able to fly from London straight into Kasane? Kasane is undoubtedly a three-night destination. We have the wildlife and the hotels. “If we could open a Kasane border, people would travel unhindered within the KAZA countries and make crossing between KAZA countries simple. For instance, there are a number of lodges on the Namibian side which bring massive revenues into Botswana. I also wish we could have a proper inland water law to help with governance of boats and set up a training facility for boat captains so that when we open for tourism, we are ready in every way.”
Wilderness Safaris Managing Director, Kim Nixon, said the tourism industry has been among the hardest hit and it is sad to see the impact this has on tourism operators like themselves but on their staff, communities and associated industries that depend on tourism as well. “Since lockdown and the ensuing SOE, Wilderness Safaris have suffered deterioration in occupancies,” he said. “We do see traveller numbers beginning to rise from April 2021. We are cautiously optimistic that with the roll out of vaccines worldwide (including Botswana) that international air access improves along with traveller confidence to begin travelling for leisure again. There is hope for the tourism industry’s revival in time, and we are working to ready ourselves and prepare accordingly.”
Moreover, Wilderness is said to have approximately 900 employees. All are affected by the pandemic through pay reductions. “This was not a decision we took lightly. Unfortunately, it was a necessity following the lockdown, camp closures and reduced operations. Approximately 800 of our team are currently at home and not expected to work. It is our hope that with time this will change as we start to see travel increased and at the rate and degree it once was for the industry. We have sought to support staff where possible, including some relief hampers of food parcels and sanitizing staff in communities in which we operate, in addition to other efforts,” said Nixon.
For Vincent Mongati of Vincent Excellent Tours, he is not sure if they will be able to retain customers post the COVID-19 pandemic. “People are losing their lives because of the virus. We value life more than we value money. So we remain optimistic that we will survive the pandemic and will things get back to normal,” he said.
Vincent Excellent Tours, who have 32 people in their employ, ceased operations in March of 2020 when government announced that they were closing borders. Mongati said he is starting to feel pressure from banks because he had taken loans to procure some of the assets for his business. “Government only supported us through the wage subsidy for five months but they are yet to pay December 2020 salaries. We should however continue working together in fighting the COVID-19 virus,” he said.
Speaking to The Botswana Gazette, Director of No. 1 Lady Tours and Safari in Chobe, Joyce Chika, said they have been closed since March of 2020. “We have a total of 13 permanent staff and government should bring back the wage subsidy,” she said. “We have been sent from pillar to post while enquiring about the subsidy payments that remained behind. We were last credited in October of 2020.”
The No. 1 Lady Tours and Safari specializes in mobile safari and their clientele are from the Asian market, notably China and South Korea. “Most of our clients said they will only be allowed to travel in July,” she said.
Meanwhile, Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO) public relations office had not responded to the questionnaire sent by The Gazette before going to press as they were said to be working on a draft and getting it cleared.