Namibian Tourism On The Edge

25 Aug 2020

Manni Goldbeck 

When I recently travelled to the Namib Desert, the effects of Covid-19 really struck home. The roads were empty of travellers. We hardly saw another vehicle at Sossusvlei, one of Namibia’s prime destinations, which was in the headlines a few years ago when people were concerned about the effect of ‘overtourism’ (mass tourism) on the fragile environment. Instead of the 1000-plus visitors who visit the site daily, we had the towering star dunes all to ourselves. Wandering around the picturesque and ancient pan of Deadvlei, one of the most scenic spots in Namibia, I felt heartsore that my country had nobody to appreciate and celebrate it. I was reminded of a tourism graph I drew up in 2016, showing the crests and troughs of tourism over the last century and the increase of visitors per year. I realised with a shock that international tourism is now the lowest it has been in a hundred-year period, after months of lockdown and restricted travel. 2020 will be recorded in history books as the year when tourism teetered at the edge. The question remains whether many in the hospitality sector, Namibia’s most sustainable industry, can survive Covid-19 and how tourism will change because of it. 

Photo: Anna Heupel

Travel in Namibia goes back a long way. In the early days it was simply an essential survival activity. The nomadic hunters and gatherers of old followed the rain. Semi-nomadic tribes travelled sporadically to hunt for the pot. Later on, Bantu tribes travelled from the north and settled in different areas of the country becoming subsistence farmers and herders. Trade developed between groups, who would trek to other areas to trade for copper with cattle and grain.  

Africa was largely unknown to the Western world until the late 1400s when intrepid Portuguese explorers like Vasco de Gama and Bartholomeu Diaz set out by sea in their small caravels to find trade routes around the continent. It was the influence of the 19th century explorers like Livingstone and Stanley, however, who introduced Africa to Europe with travel logs and books like Sandeman’s ‘Eight months in an ox-wagon’, ‘Shifts and expedients of camp life, travel and exploration’ by Baines and ‘How I found Livingstone’ by Stanley. They were the first pieces of African travel writing and they captured the Western world’s imagination and transformed the ‘dark continent’ into a place of adventure, travel and exploration. 

Photo: Sparkle Studio

It would still be many years before people dreamed of travelling to distant countries for pleasure. The first travellers in southern Africa in the 1700s and 1800s, besides the explorers and naturalists, were hunters, traders and missionaries. They travelled northwards from the Cape, crossing over the Orange/Gariep River into Great Namaqualand, what is southern Namibia today. They generated some of the earliest literature about southern Africa and influenced many aspirant travellers. Swedish explorer and trader, Charles John Andersson’s ‘Notes of travel in South-Western Africa’ and his ‘Okavango River, a narrative of travel, exploration and adventure’, which was translated into German and Swedish, became instant bestsellers and had enormous impact.  

The influx of Westerners in the late 1800s resulted in an increase in correspondence between the continents and the publication of well-known classics about the country like ‘The land god made in anger’ (John Gordon Davis), ‘Fragments of a desert land’ (Con Weinberg) and ‘Traumland Südwest’ – ‘Dreamland SWA’ (Hans-Otto Meissner) further caught the interest of the West. When the name ‘Skeleton Coast’ was coined in 1933 by journalist Sam Davis, who covered the story of the aircraft that went missing, ‘the graveyard of ships and men’ added romance and allure to one of the most desolate coastlines in Africa. 

Of course, the wars in the country deterred even the toughest of travellers, beginning with the wars between indigenous groups in the 1800s and then colonial wars between the Germans and the Nama and Herero between 1904 and 1908. The world wars discouraged any thought of leisure travel, and the boycotts, sanctions and conflict leading up to Namibian independence in 1990 kept tourists away. It was only after independence that travellers felt safe enough to visit and new lodges sprang up in the countryside, adding to the scattering of guest farms and hotels that were available to travellers up to that point. Tourism grew over the years to become one of the most lucrative sectors of the economy as people discovered Namibia to be a superlative tourist destination. 

Several world crises have influenced travel over the more recent years: the Gulf War in the early 90s, 9/11, the SARS virus, the world global recession and the ash-cloud over Iceland which kept airlines grounded. Closer to home, Ebola and xenophobic attacks in neighbouring South Africa impacted tourism and left their mark on tourist numbers. None of them, however, has had the massive effect that Covid-19 has had on tourism with all industries affected and thousands of people losing their jobs or experiencing salary cuts. Government walked the tightrope to determine whether Covid-19 or people’s livelihoods and the already-stressed economy should take precedence, and how much emphasis to place on the virus that essentially targets the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions. 

As it stands, it appears that as the country moves into its low tourist season towards the end of the year, a whole year of international tourism will have been lost - from March this year at the beginning of lockdown until March 2021 when foreign tourists will start to return for the shoulder period before the mid-year high. If the hospitality industry can endure until then, it will be interesting to see how tourism transforms in the wake of the virus.  

It has the opportunity to start afresh, as it did thirty years ago after independence, and like the country there were many things done well and many that, in retrospect and with the benefit of years of experience, could have been done differently. It is my thinking that the fast-paced tourist will be replaced by the traveller, who will explore the country at a slower pace. And, even though tourism will wear a different guise, one thing is for certain and that is that it will bounce back. 

As seen in the past, and looking at the graph, it is evident that tourism strengthened after every catastrophic worldwide event, once the situation stabilised. We have to hope that the same will occur after this cataclysmic one that has topped all others by far, plummeting tourism to zero and ringing every alarm bell. Hopefully the politicians will be more cognisant of the fact that the tourism industry is the country’s most sustainable economic activity, in the light of climate change and the limited resources of the mining industry, and give it its due credit and attention. 

I feel a surge of pride when I think of the Gondwana Collection that has managed to weather the Covid storm preserving the take-home salaries of its 1100-strong staff contingent; has returned all deposits for cancelled bookings; has paid all levies; and has honoured all obligations to suppliers and commitments to the communities unlike many who were not in a position to do so. The Gondwana Card continues, as always, to offer a fifty per cent discount on accommodation to Namibians and forty per cent to South Africans. Gondwana has been a shining example in the hospitality industry. 

When the dust has settled and we can see clearly again, there will be many questions asked worldwide, as in Namibia. These will include the decisions and support made by government – the president, health and tourism ministers – as to how effectively they dealt with the virus while supporting and keeping the best interest of the population and the economy in mind. And many will be called to answer for not honouring their promises, like the insurance companies who eagerly hold out umbrellas in the dry times and then retract them when the big storm approaches.  

In the midst of the storm, it is human nature to always look to the horizon for rainbows. History has shown that after global upheavals like world wars, the world’s population seeks to recapture that feeling of freedom and ‘joie-de-vivre’, that joy for life that keeps us alive and lights up our hearts and souls, making life worth living. Let us hope that international travel will resume in the very near future and that people will follow their wings, their hearts and their dreams to once again explore and celebrate our spectacular and special land – Namibia. 

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