Botswana was listed among the world's poorest countries when it gained full independence from Great Britain in 1966. Since then, it has become one of Africa's biggest success stories. Today, this landlocked nation to the north of South Africa and the east of Namibia boasts a stable democracy and one of the highest per capita GDPs on the continent.
A decades-long diamond boom has played a large role in developing Botswana's economic prowess. Minerals and metals have been mined here since the 1970s, but diamonds were (and still are) the most important natural resource. Because of the high quality of the gems found here, Botswana is considered the world's biggest diamond producer in terms of the overall value of exported stones.
Diamonds might be the most important natural resource here, but the most noticeable natural resource is nature.
Tourists get close to elephants in Chobe National Park. (Photo: InnaFelker/Shutterstock)
On paper, Botswana would seem as if it should be overrun with safari tourists. The country has a population of about 2.1 million and an overall area of more than 200,000 square miles — meaning this is one of the least crowded nations on Earth. Much of the land is uninhabited deserts and wetlands teeming with wildlife. Despite an overall lack of infrastructure, the wide-open spaces, low crime rate and political stability make this an ideal alternative to the continent's other major safari destinations.
Though it is growing, Botswana's tourism industry accounts for only a fraction of the economic wealth. And authorities here are perfectly happy with the low flow of tourists.
A different approach
The wetlands of the Okavango Delta and scrublands of the Kalahari were once a haven for big game hunters seeking lions and elephants. This type of trophy hunting has almost completely stopped, replaced by photo safaris. Botswana's strategy is not to throw open the gates to camera-toting tourists but to create a system that keeps the tourist numbers to a minimum so fragile natural areas can be conserved.
At the same time, the country is intent on bringing in maximum tourism dollars. To try to achieve these seemingly contrasting goals, Botswana's tourism authorities have focused on providing exclusive luxury safari experiences that come with a very high price tag. That means fewer tourists trek through places like the vast Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta, but those who do must pay a large amount of money.
Luxury safari camps are a common site in rural Botswana. (Photo: Sam DCruz/Shutterstock)
High price tags are not required by the government, but they are a necessity because of the arrangement that private safari outfits have made with authorities. Each safari company leases a large section of land. They then have exclusive rights to provide tours within that area.
To take full advantage of the exclusivity that they have purchased, most companies offer premium safari experiences with luxury accommodations and private tours through their uncrowded game parks. Price tags for this kind of vacation generally run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Because they attach value to the upscale accommodations and the lack of other safari tourists, many people with the money to spare are willing to pay the steep prices.
Options for the thrifty traveler
Though budget travelers are priced out of the best safari areas, there are a few options for thrifty tourists. A game reserve near the capital city of Gaborone offers a look at the country's wildlife to visitors who aren't signed up for exclusive safaris. Some reserves and parks have basic campsites that can accommodate budget safari-goers. However, even then, it is advisable to hire a guide or attach yourself to a ranger-guided tour of a national park.
Other countries also have adopted the low-volume, high-value approach to tourism. The Seychelles is known for its luxury resorts, which often offer guests exclusive use of an entire island. Bhutan, meanwhile, has spending minimums and visa maximums that strictly limit the number of tourists and require them to spend a certain amount of money during their stay.
This is a unique approach to balancing the benefits of a successful tourism industry with conservation of nature and culture. But with so many factors at play, it’s impossible to predict whether the high-value, low-volume strategy is sustainable. For now, though, tourists with the means to do so can enjoy an exclusive safari experience like no other in Botswana.
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