Dawn interviews Jillian Blackbeard from BTO
1. How long have you been working in the tourism sector and when did you join Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO)?
I joined BTO in 2014, after working as a Marketing Manager for Peermont Hotels for 3 years based in Gaborone. Prior to this I was involved in the aviation sector and living in Italy.
2. What’s BTO’s strategy in the next five years?
If you breakdown the mandate of BTO, its core aim is to increase tourism’s contribution to Botswana’s GDP and provide employment to the country’s citizens, sustainably and fairly. As BTO’s marketing department, our strategy is two-fold, firstly to increase market share, which can be done by bolstering and diversifying our existing markets whilst expanding to new markets. In order to attract new type of visitors or extend length of stay, BTO is promoting product diversification (MICE, Adventure, Culture and Eco Tourism) to the core markets. The second is to target new source markets, based on our established product of wildlife and leisure tourism. We cannot deny the growth in outbound tourism from markets such as China and India, in Botswana we need to better understand these markets and select how they can fit within our tourism models.
3. Which are the biggest challenges facing Botswana’s tourism?
Our biggest challenges to growth in tourism in Botswana are our stakeholders. We are aware of challenges in visa applications, especially from the new markets mentioned above, we hope that our offer to procure an e-visa system will be viewed favourably. Similarly, we are faced by long queues and substandard facilities at our ports of entry and we are actively engaging with the relevant parties. Lastly, connectivity into the country, indirectly and directly and the relative pricing structures also pose a challenge. At BTO we believe that to drive tourism to be the next generation contributor to the economy is not a solo trip but can only be done with the support of our partners.
4. What sets Botswana apart as a tourism destination?
The Okavango Delta is most probably the last remaining “jewel” in the world which wholly and sustainably supports its own ecosystem. It is the stance of the government that chooses not to continue to develop this fragile destination in order to safeguard its pristineness that sets the country apart. But it’s not just the protection of our natural heritage that sets Botswana apart, the country was built on a stable democracy and has not faced the challenges of colonialism or apartheid. The good management of this country over the past 51 years has resulted in a place to visit that is safe and welcoming for all people, something in an era of terrorism and boundaries that is defining.
5. We all know about the main safari options in Botswana, but can you tell me what exciting developments there are in adventure tourism and other specific areas?
One of the key areas for growth into tourism is products such as adventure or culture. BTO is especially keen in promoting its development in large projects such as Tsodilo Hills or Gcwihaba caves or through our international events such as Khawa Dune Challenge or Race For Rhinos. What is great about these products is the ease of participation by smaller enterprises and communities, capital investment in, for example, a village cultural tour is low and accessible to local businesses looking to enter into the tourism business. By its nature this type of tourism is sustainable, involves communities and enriches lives.
6. Sustainability and ecotourism are common words these days, how is Botswana keeping in the forefront of this area?
As mentioned above, sustainability is extremely important to BTO and we are proud to have been awarded the World Travel and Tourism Council, Tourism for Tomorrow award for Destination of the Year. I believe we won that award not just based on the exemplary eco practices that the tourism industry in Botswana has innovated and adopted but also by the involvement of communities within our tourism model and the beneficiation which we look to ensure.
7. You are also part of the Tlhokomela Trust. Can you please tell me a bit about the Trust’s objectives?
The Tlhokomela Botswana Endangered Wildlife Trust was set up over a year ago with the mandate to act as a facilitating body for conservation activities taking place in Botswana, with a special focus on fund raising initiatives which are national, sustainable and ensure the longevity of revenue flow to support the protection and growth of Botswana’s endangered species. What we were keen to ensure was that funding for conservation through the Trust would be nationally received and nationally managed, as opposed to organisations utilising Botswana’s good conservation name yet being based as a fundraising operation outside of our borders.
8. Which is your favourite place in Botswana?
I was raised between a farm on the banks of the Tati River near Francistown and the village (at that time Serowe was just know as ‘the village’) therefore bush life is very much close to my heart. Saying that, I enjoy Botswana’s landscape wherever I find myself due to the element of wild open space. Whether I am in the Okavango or the Tuli, what makes me happiest is the feeling that I am not crowded and that my experiences are my own and not shared with large amounts of people.
9. You’ve spent a lot of time in the bush, of all the sightings, which has been your favourite?
I recently took a trip to Linyanti where there was a large pack of wild dogs with their pups, we spent hours watching the juveniles playing and interacting. The amusing part of this was that they had positioned themselves around an old termite mound occupied by some very large warthogs, which the pups unwittingly stalked up on and were then chased at speed by the warthogs. A role reversal for sure. Nevertheless, sightings for me do not need to involve the big five, as I take pleasure in other unique experiences like the ground nesting Southern Carmine Bee Eaters or the fight of the Spider Hunting Wasp to pull a Sun-spider down its tunnel.
10. What’s the most rewarding part of your job? As the alarm goes off at 5.30, I don’t often have that feeling of “have to go to work” because really this job is about making people’s dreams a reality. What we are trying to do, results in people’s lives changing whether it’s a tourist on an adventure of a lifetime, or the support of a SMME who is breaking into a future in the tourism economy, or to the development of strategies that will see our most valuable natural areas being protected through green energy. Every day is different and every day makes a difference.