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Botswana to Allow Chartered Flights to Boost Tourism Sector

FILE - Guests stand beneath a baobab tree illuminated by fire in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, April 25, 2018.

Botswana says it will allow chartered flights to the country's prime tourist destinations starting November 1, in an attempt to boost a sector that has lost hundreds of millions of dollars since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flights will be allowed to land at two airports in Maun and Kasane, two prime tourist resorts, in the vicinity of the vast Okavango Delta.

Botswana's minister of environment, natural resources conservation and tourism, Philda Kereng, said in a statement that the government is finalizing rules to facilitate the arrival of tourists.

These will include protocols to contain the spread of COVID-19, she said.

FILE - A pair of male elephants is seen in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, April 25, 2018.
FILE - A pair of male elephants is seen in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, April 25, 2018.

Tour operators around the world's largest Delta are optimistic following this week's announcement.

Reaboka Mbulawa, who runs safari lodges in Maun, said the move will help resuscitate a dying sector.

"It is better, as major companies start to kick in, we will be waiting and preparing. As it is, we went into town, we saw a whole lot of stuff being taken into the Delta. It shows you that the other side of the industry has mobilized."

However, Mbulawa believes the opening will only benefit the "bigger players" in the tourism industry.

"It is a good development, but looking at it, you will still find that only the major tourism companies will be the ones that will be able to charter in their clients, through their agents," Mbulawa said. "As for the rest of Batswana, the ordinary citizens, will be waiting to see a time when the normal kind of lights will be open. It is a new development for the country but it is not as glamorous as we think."

Most of the workers in the tourism industry were laid off as the pandemic led to a global downturn in travel.

Ross Branch, a pilot with air charter company MackAir, has largely been idle since the pandemic began. MackAir provides scenic flights over the Okavango Delta.

"As a pilot, this is the best news for us because the COVID-19 has hit our industry so hard, flying had come to a halt," he said. "To hear the news that the border will be opening to international tourists with charter planes is amazing. It's a step in the right direction for our economy. It will open up a lot of jobs."

Tourism contributes around 13 percent of the diamond-rich country's GDP. However, the industry has lost about $220 million in canceled bookings since travel restrictions were imposed in March.

With the flights beginning Sunday, officials hope to recover some of that revenue.