He does not ask for much from his bosses from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture at Capital Hill.
All he wants is for them to upgrade to gravel level the footpaths masquerading as roads leading to various parts of Liwonde National Park.
Is that too much to ask? He wonders.
For this game ranger (I will protect his identity), the look of disappointment he sees on both local and international tourists when they can’t see any of the ‘Big Five’ game animals (lions, elephants, leopards, buffaloes and rhinos) breaks his heart and gnaws at the core of the pride he has in the park.
Liwonde National Park, claims the ranger, has all these ‘Big Five’—the most difficult and dangerous animals to hunt (not necessarily because of their size, but rather their aggression). These are animals that have always held a magnetic allure to tourists.
Unfortunately, during the rainy season, it is rare to view these beasts at most national parks and game reserves in the country because the roads leading to them become impassable.
“We know where the animals are; but how do you get there without the risk of getting stuck in the middle of nowhere in the jungle?”
As a result, he says, the rich and beautiful park “is a seasonal tourist area, only fully ready for the tourist in the dry season.”
“You have no idea how much money government loses by failing to improve the road network in the park. During the dry season, this park makes as much as K1 million per week because the roads are passable. When it starts to rain, that figure dramatically falls to as low as K100 000 per week simply because the ministry is not interested in making an investment as basic as gravel roads that can reach to places where the Big Five would usually be in the rainy season,” complains the ranger. Rangers make do with showing tourists warthogs, impalas, kudus, and waterbucks among other animals that do not give visitors the much-needed game viewing experience that bring repeat visits—critical for the sustainable revenue and industry growth.
The ranger’s frustrations are understandable, considering that his Ministry at Capital Hill this year spent tens of millions of its budget allocation to buy buses that no one claims as his or her own.
The buses are now getting rusty at police premises in the capital, having been confiscated as part of the crackdown on cashgate. If only those millions were invested in his beloved park, says the ranger, the return on the investment to the nation would be huge and widespread.
In fact, at the Ministry of Tourism, nearly K4.6 billion is suspected to have been looted between July and September 2013 through dubious payouts, most of which went directly to people’s pockets without bringing the greater good to the greatest number of people in Malawi.
It is a lack of patriotism that is as mindboggling as the amounts stolen from a struggling government department.
No wonder, national parks, which fall under the ministry, lack basic infrastructure that could help bring more revenue and expand its contribution to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
It is hard to believe that in the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy II (MGDS II)—the country’s second medium-term national development strategy formulated to attain the country’s long-term development aspirations—tourism is a priority area that is expected to help the blueprint achieve its goal of wealth creation through sustainable economic growth and infrastructure development.
Alas, the sector that displays so much potential to generate revenue, employment, improve infrastructure and promote local entrepreneurship as well as conservation of wildlife and culture has become the poster child of how Malawi is so good at achieving so much on paper but so little in reality. We now know why: people put personal interests ahead of the national good.
I know that government—recognising that tourism has direct linkages with other sectors of the economy—has taken some steps to improve the industry through a number of development projects.
I am aware of the construction of access roads to some tourist sites, especially along the lakeshore district of Mangochi; improvement of airports and airstrips and construction of Mpale Cultural Village.
Indeed, the construction of Umodzi Park comprising the Bingu International Conference Centre,the President’s Hotel and Presidential Villas in Lilongwe is a necessary investment.
But then look what is happening to that multi-billion kwacha investment. It is literally being downgraded to some second rate establishment by the absence of a formally established management arrangement, executive nose-poking and gross incompetence on the part of tourism technocrats.
The poor supporting infrastructure such as improved access roads within protected areas and other basic but important investments will make it impossible for the country to achieve stated outcomes such as increased contribution of the tourism industry to GDP; better environment for doing business in the sector; increased number of tourists; and enhanced local participation in the tourism industry.
The Ministry of Tourism has identified many ways of bettering our tourism industry. The only problem is that few are being implemented.
And given the ministry’s role in cashgate, the reasons for the spectacular failure have nothing to do with inadequate resources.