Last updated: 03:00 AM ET, Fri October 30 2015

As Diamond Prices Fall, Tourism Becomes More Important to Botswana

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | October 30, 2015

As Diamond Prices Fall, Tourism Becomes More Important to Botswana

Photo by David Cogswell

Botswana has been one of Africa’s success stories. Peaceful since it gained independence from Great Britain in the 1960s, this sparsely populated, landlocked nation in Southern Africa has thrived thanks, in large part, to its diamond mining industry. 

Tourism has played an important role in Botswana’s success as well, and it is about to become an even more vital piece of the jigsaw. 

A need to diversify

Worst-case projections have shown that diamond reserves in Botswana could be depleted in less than 20 years. That seems like dire news for a place that gets 30 percent of its GDP from precious gems. The problem actually turned out to be more immediate than expected. Slumping diamond prices mean that Botswana has to act to diversify right away rather than planning for a gem-less future a decade or two down the road. 

Other materials, such as uranium and copper, are being extracted, and there is also an effort to grow the country's traditional economic activity: cattle rearing. However, because of Botswana’s huge tracts of wilderness, nature tourism seems like the obvious choice for immediate economic impact. 

Botswana has been developing its tourism industry. In fact, it has been earning kudos from conservationists for its environmentally friendly approach to the task. 

The world’s most exclusive safari destination

The country is ideal for safari tourism, with Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta often considered among the last truly undeveloped places on earth. To keep tourism numbers down, the government grants concessions to safari companies, who then run exclusive tours in their allotted area. Most offer luxury experiences, and people pay a premium to be pampered and to go on a safari where they are certain that they will not come across any other tourists. Safari outfits pay high lease fees to get this level of exclusivity. The costs are passed on to their clients, so there is really no way around the high prices.  

There have also been efforts to capitalize on tourism trends. Many people became interested in Botswana after reading one of Alexander McCall Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” books or seeing the HBO series of the same name. Because the series mostly takes place in and around the capital, Gaborone, tourists can experience Botswana without having to book a six-figure safari.  

Where does Botswana go from here? 

The highly exclusive safari model can bring a lot of income, but, by definition, it is not something that can expand. The Kalahari Desert, which covers a majority of the country, does not have the same allure as the nature-rich Okavango, and safari firms would probably balk at the suggestion of smaller concessions. 

Though it no longer has the budget-backpacker cred it once did, Lonely Planet is still a respected guide amongst the non-jet-set. Perhaps it is a bit surprising, then, that they named a pricey place like Botswana their choice for best destination for 2016

The LP guide points out that the country is truly wild and, for the most part, truly expensive. However, independent travel is doable. There are some cheaper accommodation options (in the $100 per-night range), and it is possible to drive or bus to national park destinations or hire local guides to take you around the Delta. 

These indie travel options hint that Botswana could see its high-end tourism trickle down to the mid-range. However, the best spots in the lucrative safari trade will probably be off limits to all but the biggest splurgers. That’s good news for the conservation of Botswana, but bad news for people who want to visit this Eden-like destination on the cheap. 

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