Skip to main content

Tourism, Conservation, and Culture in the Kalahari Desert, Botswana

The impacts of tourism on indigenous peoples is a subject of concern in both anthropology and socioeconomic development (Smith 1977a, 1977b; Swain 1977; Wu 1982; Wood 1984). As Smith (1977a:3) notes, tourism can be a powerful force in bringing about cultural change. On the positive side, it can heighten people's appreciation of indigenous customs and serve as a source of employment and income. Tourism can, however, also exacerbate problems of factionalism and social stratification in local communities and disrupt people's daily routines.

Although investment in expanding tourism has been advocated by some governments, international donors, and local development organizations, the socioeconomic effects that outsiders can have on local populations remain problematic. This is particularly true when people are forced off their land so that governments or development agencies can establish tourist facilities or reserves. Even though more jobs might be available to local people, many of these are service-oriented, menial positions. Not surprisingly, local people are divided over the costs and benefits of tourism.

The Republic of Botswana in southern Africa provides a useful example of the effects of tourism on indigenous people. Many of the tourists who visit the Kalahari Desert and adjacent areas do so in order to experience what they believe to be a kind of "primitive Eden," a place where wild animals and human populations live in harmony, unaffected by outside forces. Tourist brochures in the United States, Europe, and South Africa advertise Botswana as having "unspoiled habitats" and "some of the world's last remaining hunter-gatherers, the diminutive Bushmen of the Kalahari." Such made Botswana an increasingly popular tourist destination.

Bushmen and Tourism in the Kalahari

The Republic of Botswana has one of the fastest growing tourism industries in Africa. Unlike Kenya, Rwanda, and other east African countries, however, tourism makes up a relatively small proportion of Botswana's Gross Domestic Product. Part of the reason for this situation is that until the 1970s Botswana had relatively few tourist facilities. There were also few all-weather roads in the rural areas, meaning that most tourist visiting the region had to have four-wheel drive vehicles. Most of these people can be described as "do-it-yourself" tourists who place high value on seeing wildlife and people in their "natural state" (Johnson 1976:237).

Campbell and von Richter (1976:245) have pointed out that tourism in Botswana is based primarily on wildlife. Most visitors focus on the national parks and game reserves, many of which contain a wide array of large mammals, birds, and plant species (see table). In the past, many of the tourists who visited remote parts of Botswana came by plane. Today, however, there are paved roads to most of the major towns, with the notable exception of Maun, which is located on the edge of the Okavango Delta, a prime tourist destination.

National Parks, Game Reserves, and National Monuments in Botswana

Name of Park, Reserve, Name District Founding

or Monument Size (km) Date

Gemsbok National Park Kgalagadi 24,304 1932

Mabuasehube Game Reserve Kgalagadi 1,811 1971

Khutse Game Reserve Kweneng 2,703 1971

Central Kalahari Game Reserve Ghanzi 52,347 1961

Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve Northwest,

Central 3,790 1970

Nxai Pan National Park Northwest 2,272 1971

Moremi Wildlife Reserve Northwest 2,788 1975

Chobe National Park Chobe 10,720 1961

Tsodilo Hills National Monument Northwest 132 1978

Aha Hills National Monument Northwest 148 1978

Drotsky's Cave (g/wihaba)

National Monument Northwest 60 1978

Gaborone Game Reserve Southeast 260 1980

It is possible to characterize Botswana's tourist industry by using Smith's (1977a:2-3) typology of tourism. The two main types of tourism in rural Botswana are environmental tourism and, to a lesser extent, ethnic tourism. Environmental tourism consists of visits by people who wish to observe geographical features or wildlife. Ethnic tourism, on the other hand, includes visits to "exotic" peoples' communities in order to witness "traditional" activities, rituals, and customs. In some cases, ethnic tourists provide economic benefits to local people through purchasing handicrafts or paying various services.

In the early days of Botswana tourism, most of the visitors were either hunters on safari or tourists who wished to observe and photograph wildlife (Johnson 1976). Many of the tourists went to the Moremi Wildlife Reserve in the Okavango Delta or to Chobe National Park, where large game animals were relatively abundant. Since the numbers of people living in these areas were fairly small, most of the contacts between tourists and local residents occurred during tours in which local people served as guides (Almagor 1985).

As tours to Botswana grew more popular, clients of tour and safari companies sought new experiences. Some wanted to see the indigenous people of the Kalahari, the Bushmen (San), or, as they are known in Botswana, the Basarwa. Tour operators began to market trips to such places as Tsodilo Hills in northwestern Botswana, where it was possible to see not only rock paintings but also Bushmen residing nearby. Some of the more intrepid travelers chose to drive deep into the Kalahari Desert to see Bushmen who supposedly had little or no contact with outsiders.

The Bushmen of the Kalahari have excited popular and scientific curiosity since they were first written about in the seventeenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, entire families of Bushman were being exported to Europe, where they were exhibited to audiences eager for entertainment. The mistreatment of Bushmen and other aboriginal people came to the attention of the Aborigines Protection Society in 1914 because of the case of Klikko, an indigenous man who had been brought to England from the Kalahari and forced to dance on stage while the public threw coins at him (Neil Parsons, personal communication).

The issue of tourism as it relates to Basarwa populations has been a concern of administrators, anthropologists, and local people for more than 50 years. In 1936, approximately 70 San were brought to the Empire Exhibition in Johannesburg, South Africa, by Donald Bain, a big-game hunter and entrepreneur. The Bushmen were portrayed as "the last living remnants of a dying race" (Botswana National Archives file S.469/1/1). After the exhibition was over, Bain had some of the Bushmen stay at his camp in the northern Cape, where they were studied by a whole series of scientists.

On 3 November 1936, a deputation of professors from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg approached W.H. Clark, the government secretary of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, about the idea of forming a Bushman Reserve in the Kalahari. As the note handed to Clark state, "It is of the highest importance to scientific investigators from the linguistic, ethnological, and anthropological stand-points, that they should be preserved, as they represent a stage in the history of man's evolution which has long since disappeared and existence of which among them is now unique" (Botswana National Archives file S.469/1/1).

The Protectorate government responded by declaring that establishing a "Bushman reserve" was out of the question. Some government administrators felt that the only purpose of such a reserve would be to serve as a kind of "living museum" or "human zoo." C.F. Rey, the resident commissioner of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, commented that such a reserve would be visited by scientists who would then "carry out anthropological investigations and make money by writing misleading books which lead nowhere" (Botswana National Archives file S.469/1/1).

The concern of government administrators that Basarwa would be the objects of tourist curiosity has continued up until recently. In 1975 the Bushman development officer in the Ministry of Local Government and Lands issued a statement concerning "Bushmen and tourism" (Savingram LG. 1/3, 29 April 1975), the basic theme of which was that tourists represented a problem for Basarwa citizens since local people had little ability to control the manner of their contact with outsiders. A common complaint was that Basarwa were frequently asked to take off their Western clothes so that tourists could photograph them in their "traditional" garb. A second issue raised was that tourists often gave tobacco, liquor, and other good to Basarwa, thus creating a kind of dependency relationship. An additional problem, according to the Bushman development officer, was that tourists rarely asked permission to visit Basarwa camps, causing a fair amount of consternation among people who wished simply to be left alone (Elizabeth Wily, personal communication).

Impact of Tourism Among Botswana Basarwa

A primary reason cited by Botswana government planners for increasing tourism in Botswana is that it generates employment and income. There is no question that some Basarwa have been able to raise their income through selling craft items to tourists and through serving as guides. In the Tsodilo Hills region, it was estimated that the average annual income of Ju/wasi (!Kung) household was 600 to 800 Pula (US $300 to $400), far higher than was the case for most Basarwa in Botswana. In the southwestern Kalahari, one !Xo community reported in 1988 that it received as much as 5,000 Pula per year from a safari operator who brought tourists to observe them engaging in such activities as hunting and gathering.

Basarwa groups are divided in their opinions about tourism. Some feel that tourism has been useful in that it has enabled them to make some extra money. Others feel that they have little control over the actions of tourists, and they resent the intrusions in their lives. According to a number of Basarwa, tourism poses difficulties for people, one being that it can have a negative impact on the security of local subsistence systems. (In some cases, labor is withdrawn form foraging or agriculture so that individuals can serve the needs of tourists.) Another difficulty is that sometimes visitors bring little food or water, hoping to "live off the land" or obtain resources from resident groups.

Judging from the experiences of Basarwa in the northeastern Kweneng District and Central Kalahari Game Reserve regions of Botswana, tourism can affect the degree of social harmony in local communities. One of the problems of a tourism-based industry is that the breadth of local participation in the benefits tends to be somewhat skewed. The people who benefit the most are adult males who are multilingual and who have had some experience in dealing with outsiders. It is these people who often end up working for tour operators or providing assistance to visitors. In these kinds of situations, tourism serves to increase the degree of social stratification in host communities, separating the haves from the have-nots.

Another problem with tourism involves interpersonal conflict between members of the host communities and visitors. Numerous Basarwa mentioned that they resent the fact that tourists do not greet them or tell them why they have come to their villages. A common complaint is that tourists do not treat Basarwa as they would other people. "Why is it," they ask, "that we are requested to take off our clothes so people can take pictures of us?" Basarwa are frequently taken aback by the ostentatious display of wealth on the part of some tourists, who drive up in Land Rovers or Toyota Land Cruisers and walk around in expensive safari clothing, draped with cameras and video recorders.

Although advocated of tourism often claim that economic benefits will accrue to local people in the form of jobs, an examination of tourist-related employment in the Kalahari casts doubt on this argument. The jobs given to Basarwa are often menial, consisting generally of catering positions. None of the safari companies is owned or operated by Basarwa. Management positions in the rapidly expanding tourism companies are usually reserved for non-Basarwa, many of whom are Western trained or have extensive experience. According to some Basarwa, tourism is out of their hands; it is controlled, they say, by private businesses or by the government, and they have little or no access to well-paying jobs.

Stresses occur in Basarwa communities when large numbers of tourists visit. Some Basarwa dislike the fact that outsiders, including anthropologists, invade their privacy, walking into their houses uninvited. Others not their lack of appreciation for the fact that they are occasionally requested to do disagreeable chores for tourists such as washing their clothes or cleaning up their campsites. Often the tourists give them little in the way of recompense. As one tourist put it, "What good is it to give Bushmen money? They don't understand its value. Besides, there is no place to spend it out here anyway."

Basarwa respond to tourists in a variety of ways. It is not unusual to see individuals or families flocking toward tourist vehicles with handicrafts in tow. In the town of Ghanzi in western Botswana, some poverty-stricken Basarwa beg tourists for food, which leaves the visitors feeling uncomfortable. A remote area development officer observed that a few Basarwa have become so tourist oriented that they literally begin dancing in place and removing their clothes whenever they spot a tourist vehicle in the distance. He also pointed out that some of the Basarwa - those who have had extensive contacts with tourists - refuse to become involved in development work, primarily because they expect to get paid for their labor.

It is important to note that some Basarwa groups have had excellent working relationships with safari companies. One tour operator who visits people in the southeastern and central Kalahari areas is always welcome, according to Kua and G//ana informants, because he provides much-needed employment. The owner of the company uses some of his profits to invest in developments in local villages. He helped purchase a donkey cart for one group so that they can haul water in drums to their homes. He also bought seeds and tools so that people could expand their agricultural activities. A number of safari companies have lobbied on behalf of Basarwa, recommending that land be set aside for them and that they be provided with water and social services.

Cultural Impacts of Tourism

Tourism has had some significant effects on the culture of Botswana Basarwa. In contrast to the notion that rapid modernization brings about a kind of acculturation that destroys local traditions, a number of Basarwa have become actively engaged in perpetuating customary activities. Tyua groups along the Nata River in northeastern Botswana have more initiation rites and dances than they did in the past, in part, according to local people, because they wish to differentiate themselves form their non-Basarwa neighbors and visitors. Basarwa in several parts of the Kalahari requested help from the National Museum and Art Gallery in setting up their own museums and libraries. Some of them also asked anthropologists to provide them with their research information on indigenous Basarwa customs so that they could develop curricula for local private schools.

Tourism in the Kalahari has served to expand the number of marketing opportunities for Basarwa handicrafts. A kind of renaissance in Basarwa crafts has produced baskets, ostrich eggshell bead necklaces, skin bags, and other items. The handicraft industry has had some negative effects, however, in that it ties people to an unstable world market system. A common refrain heard in rural Botswana is that prices paid to producers are low and that profits go mainly to go-betweens, some of them private companies owned by people who are not form Botswana. In the 1980s, efforts were made to increase local craft purchases and expand producer prices through the formation of such nongovernmental organizations as !Kung San Crafts and Gantsicraft.

Tourism can make local people want economic gains that are difficult, if not impossible, to attain. Interviews of a sample of Basarwa children in six different communities in the Kalahari revealed that many of them hoped to move to town and get well-paying jobs. When asked what they wanted in their future, several of them said, "Toyota Land Cruisers, just like the ones that tourists drive." A few of them remarked that they looked forward to having the chance to sit outside their tents in tourist camps, eating sumptuous meals and enjoying iced drinks. Although there is inherently nothing wrong with these aspirations, the chances of Basarwa obtaining them are relatively remote given the socioeconomic conditions in the Kalahari.

Some Basarwa wanted to restrict tourism, and sometimes local development personnel tried to keep visitors away from local communities. Upon arriving at the village of Ka/Gae in the Ghanzi District, people were handed a printed sheet which began with the words, "You are not welcome here." In the Tsodilo Hills, on the other hand, tourists received a sheet that read, "Welcome to the Tsodilo Hills, a wonderland of natural beauty and magnificent rock paintings. Handicraft prices are as follows..." It is clear that tourism is viewed differently, depending upon the perceptions that local people have of its costs and benefits.

Conservation and Culture in the Central Kalahari

The argument for promoting tourism in Botswana could have substantial impacts on the well-being of resident populations in the central Kalahari. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Khutse game Reserve together make up the largest protected region in Botswana and one of the largest reserved areas on the African continent. The central reserve and the Khutse are favored tourist destinations in part because of the presence of Basarwa and Bakgalagadi populations, who hunt and gather for part of their subsistence (Silberbauer 1965, 1981; Hitchcock 1985, 1988). The central Kalahari also contains a variety of habitats and a large number of wild animal and bird species (Owens and Owens 1981, 1984; Kalahari Conservation Society 1988).

In 1985, the Botswana government called for a commission to investigate the various development options in the central Kalahari. The CKGR Commission reviewed evidence, interviewed district and local officials, and held meetings with residents of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve between September and November 1985. As a result of its findings, the commission recommended that people be allowed to continue to reside in the reserve (Government of Botswana 1985:vi, 32ff.). In late 1986 this recommendation was rejected by the ministry that oversees parks and reserves in Botswana (Ministry of Commerce and Industry 1986:1). In a speech to Parliament on 1 December 1986, the minister stated that the government had a mandate to make decisions in the national interest and that the reserve would lose its integrity if people were allowed to stay there (Botswana Daily News, 3 December 1986, p. 1).

Two ministers who toured the central Kalahari in mid-1988 offered several reasons as to why resettlement was necessary. First of all, they noted, the move would help ensure conservation of the resource base in the reserve. Secondly, they argued that a move to other areas would increase people's access to social services and development assistance. Finally, they stressed that such a move would enhance the tourism potential of the region and would serve to expand economic opportunities for local people in the tourism industry.

It is ironic that conservation and tourism are being used as arguments to dispossess people in the Kalahari. In recent years there have been an increasing number of calls for alliances between indigenous populations and conservationists (Clay 1985:5; Crespi and Greenberg 1987:25). Scientists and development planners have postulated that environmental, social, and economic goals can best be achieved if local people are allowed to participate in development decisions. Given that one of Botswana's four main planning objectives is to promote social justice, it might well be worth the effort to reconsider some of the effects of conservation and tourism expansion policies in order to ensure that sustained and equitable development can be achieved.


Almagor, U.

1985 A Tourist's "Vision Quest" in an African Game Reserve. Annals of Tourism Research 12(1):31-47.

Campbell, A.C. and W. von Richter

1976 The Okavango Delta and Tourism. In A.C. Campbell, ed. Proceedings of the Symposium on the Okavango Delta and Its Future Utilisation. pp. 245-247. Gaborone, Botswana: Botswana Society.

Clay, J.W.

1985 Parks and People. Cultural Survival Quarterly 9(1):2-6.

Crespi, M. and A. Greenberg

1987 Humanistic Conservation: A Proposed Alliance Between Anthropology and Environmentalists. Central Issues in Anthropology 7:25-31.

Government of Botswana

1985 Report of the Central Kalahari Fact Finding Mission. Gaborone, Botswana: Government Printer.

Hitchcock, R.K.

1985 Foragers on the Move: San Survival Strategies in Botswana Parks and Reserves. Cultural Survival Quarterly 9(1):31-36.

1988 Monitoring, Research, and Development in the Remote Areas of Botswana. Gaborone, Botswana: Government Printer.

Johnson, P.G.

1976 Wildlife as a Basis for Future Tourism Development. In A.C. Campbell, ed. Proceedings of the Symposium on the Okavango Delta and Its Future Utilisation. pp. 235-243. Gaborone: Botswana, Botswana Society.

Kalahari Conservation Society

1988 Management Plan for the Central Kalahari and Khutse Game Reserves. Gaborone, Botswana: Kalahari Conservation Society.

Ministry of Commerce and Industry

1986 Report of the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve Fact Finding Mission. Circular No. 1 of 1986. Gaborone, Botswana: Government Printer.

Owens, M. and D. Owens

1981 Preliminary Final Report on the Central Kalahari Predator Research Project. Report to the Department of Wildlife, National Parks, and Tourism. Gaborone, Botswana.

1984 Cry of the Kalahari. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Silberbauer, G.B.

1965 Report to the Government of Bechuanaland on the Bushman Survey. Gaberones, Bechuanaland: Bechuanaland Government.

1981 Hunter and Habitat in the Central Kalahari Desert. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, V.L.

1977a Introduction. In V.L. Smith, ed. Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. pp. 1-14. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

1977b Eskimo Tourism: Micro-Models and Marginal Men. In V.L. Smith, ed. Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. pp. 51-70. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Swain, M.B.

1977 Cuna Women and Ethnic Tourism: A Way to Persist and an Avenue to Change. In V.L. Smith, ed. Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. pp. 71-81. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Wood, R.E

1984 Ethnic Tourism, The State, and Cultural Change in Southeast Asia. Annals of Tourism Research 11(3):353-374.

Wu, C.T.

1982 Issues of Tourism and Socioeconomic Development. Annals of Tourism Research 9(2):313-488.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.