3 Jan 2020
If you’re in the tourism industry, you are often asked how Namibian tourism is doing in the present economic climate, with factors like our three-year drought and current financial woes. The questions are usually asked with the hope that reassurance will be given, conveying a message that there is some light at the end of the tunnel. And, yes, there is light. Despite a slight decline in tourism in the last two years and the challenges that we are presently faced with, visitors continue to stream into the country. Namibia’s hospitality and tourism industry has in the three decades since independence shown an annual average growth of five per cent, generated thousands of jobs and still ranks as one of the fastest growing industries in the economic sector, contributing approximately eleven per cent of Namibia’s GDP (more than 20 billion Namibian dollars).
It has been guesstimated that there is a decline of seven to ten per cent in some sectors of the leisure tourism industry. This is the result of a combination of factors, fashion and world trends. We feel this more acutely after our bumper year in 2017, even in the low season, which was largely attributed to Namibia’s ‘opening of the sky’ policy, which welcomed more international airlines, like KLM and Qatar, into the country. Ironically, the successful year could have resulted in the perception that Namibian accommodation was fully booked because of the late release of many of the block bookings reserved for groups. Several accommodation facilities have now adjusted their approach to cancellation policies to avoid such a misperception in the future.
It is evident to everyone in the industry that tourism has changed in the last three years with people booking and travelling in different ways. Instead of the large tour groups, which contributed to the growth of tourism in Namibia, there are now more medium- to small-sized groups. This change could possibly have been influenced by the worldwide boom in cruise-ship travel – or ‘floating hotels’, with that class of tourist now preferring the attraction and ease of travelling on cruise ships. Life never closes a door without opening another, and on the upside, due to the digital revolution more tourists are booking directly with online booking agents like booking.com rather than with the local tour operators of the past. And a younger group of individual travellers is now attracted to Namibia, renting vehicles and seeking adventures and outdoor activities, resulting in an increase in car hire.
It is possible that the growing awareness of climate change worldwide may have influenced air travel, with travellers of today more aware of the impact of their individual carbon footprint on the Earth. The last two years of hot European summers also meant that more Europeans stayed home, spending time travelling in their own countries. The recent discussions about the 1904-1907 Herero-German genocide could also have influenced the German tourism market.
Another trend seen in Namibia after the apparent shortage of accommodation in 2017, especially in the rural areas of Namibia, is a number of operators - often with a European partner - building their own camps to secure availability of beds and to create their own identity. Additionally, a growing number of tourism companies have incorporated the operational side of the business including car rental into their repertoire of services, becoming part of the whole value chain. Car hire companies have mushroomed in the last few years. In all areas, the pie is now much bigger than it has been in the past.
At the end of the day, we are all connected throughout the world, and feel the ripples of cataclysmic events across the globe. Unexpected events like the closure of British tour company Thomas Cook, which was one of the oldest travel agencies in the world having been in business for 178 years, left 600 000 people stranded worldwide. The closure reinforces the importance of moving with the times, staying relevant, embracing the technological digital revolution and adapting to change in general.
Closer to home, in Africa, other factors influencing tourism in Namibia may be the boom in tourism in East African countries like Kenya and Tanzania, as well as tourism from our southern African neighbours in the SADC region being affected by the economic situation in their countries. Situations like the xenophobia in South Africa and the extreme economic crisis in Zimbabwe affect international travel. In Namibia, the financial crisis and uncertainty around Air Namibia, with its adverse news headlines, could have negatively impacted tourism, as well as the lack of maintenance of roads along the main tourism routes due to financial constraints. The drought that is presently peaking could also have had an impact. Another concern is that the low budget allocation to the Namibian Tourism Board may hinder its ability to market Namibia comprehensively overseas. Kudos, however, go to the Namibian Tourism Bureau in Frankfurt for its innovative marketing and for keeping Namibia positively on the front page. In years to come, the private sector and the Namibian Tourism Board will need to join forces in actively marketing the country to a wider audience.
On the positive side, the Namibian Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration has eased up on its visa restrictions and has embraced a new policy of visa openness, allowing visitors from 47 countries to obtain visas on arrival. It is inspiring that the Namibian government is increasingly recognising the benefits of tourism for the economy.
Seeing the light, despite the slight decline in visitor numbers this year, tourism remains the one economic sector that holds hope and potential - and drives much-needed job creation in the country. The feeling in the industry is that the outlook for 2020 will be similar to this year, with no further decline and perhaps a slight increase in the number of guests to Namibia. In the long-term, it appears that Namibia will maintain its five per cent average growth rate, as it has done since independence, especially with more availability in the hot spots in the rural areas. We can look positively ahead.
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