Namibia: Love thy wild and charming neighbour
Namibia is wide open for tourists. Should it concentrate on international high-rollers or on regional guests, including South Africans?
The shouted warning — "Duck!" — came in the nick of time. A moment later and I would have had a face full of webbed foot. As it was, the trailing leg of the pelican (not a duck) brushed my ear. Not everyone was so lucky. When the bird finally came to rest, it was with one foot on a railing, the other planted firmly on a Dutch tourist’s head. The pelican’s stance was as lopsided as the victim’s grin.
I was in Walvis Bay, on the first leg of a day-long trip with a local adventure company. The small tourist craft was heading out to view seals, dolphins and whatever other creatures decided to show themselves.
There were plenty. Dolphins swam and leapt alongside us as we headed out to sea. Thousands of residents of a seal colony swayed, brayed and fought mock battles on their sandbar as we passed by slowly — too slowly for some passengers, given the accompanying stench. A humpback whale surfaced a few metres away. And a gigantic mola mola — the pale-skinned ocean sunfish that can weigh up to 1,000kg — floated carelessly by. A family of black-backed jackals left their sand-dune hideout to pick at fish stranded on the shore.
And then there were the pelicans. They are a popular attraction, pursuing tourist boats in the certainty that crew members will reward them with fish.
Back on land, we were directed to 4x4s waiting to take us dune-bashing along the coast towards Sandwich Harbour — it’s not a real harbour and no one is sure why it’s called Sandwich. The first stretch is a race along the seashore to (you hope) beat incoming tides. Then the drivers — locals who have grown up playing in the area — take you into the dunes at speeds and angles that defy the laws of physics.
The views are spectacular and the adrenaline rush is immense. A lone jackal tried to join in — though it was probably the smell of biltong and chicken during a brief lunch break that emboldened it to try to sneak into our circle. It left hungry.
Namibian resorts and tour operators are making a concerted effort to lure more South Africans. They may also be attracting a greater geographic spread of overseas visitors, but they recognise that their next-door neighbour can be their bread and butter.
Walvis Bay and its adjoining town, Swakopmund, are pumping out the message that flight times from Joburg’s OR Tambo airport are the same as those from Joburg to Cape Town. They may not have world-class winelands but they offer their own attractions. Walvis Bay for adventures like those I had, and Swakopmund for its traditional German architecture and charm, and as a base for excursions into the Namib and up to the Skeleton Coast.
But it’s not just about flying in. Driving distances to Namibia are not overpowering, though admittedly there is a border or two in the way, depending on whether you drive from Gauteng or the Cape.
Besides catering for holidaymakers, the towns are presenting themselves as an alternative venue for the SA corporate conference trade. According to a manager at Swakopmund’s Strand Hotel, where I stayed and which has its own conference centre: "We are being recognised as a regional business destination."
The Strand is owned by O&L Leisure, Namibia’s biggest tourism group, which has other properties in Windhoek, Etosha and Chobe, on the Namibian side of the Chobe River, and is looking for opportunities elsewhere. Like most operators, O&L wants what executive Martin Wiemers calls a "balanced" portfolio that attracts not only big-spending international visitors but also regional guests with more limited budgets.
At the group’s Windhoek property, 90% of guests are Namibian. At the Strand Hotel, it’s 20% Namibian and 10% South African. But then you come to the luxury resorts. At Chobe Water Villas and Mokuti Etosha Lodge, which is on the border of the Etosha National Park, 85% of guests are from overseas. Namibians and South Africans make up the 15% difference.
At Natural Selection, a boutique resort company with safari camps in places like Etosha, Kaokoland and the Skeleton Coast, the disparity is even greater. According to co-founder Dave van Smeerdijk, 95% of guests are from overseas. Namibia’s former status as a German colony makes it a popular destination for visitors from the old "mother country", as is the case with O&L, but other European countries, Britain, the US and Australia are also important markets.
Given that it can cost more than R10,000 a night to stay in some resorts, it’s perhaps not surprising that foreigners dominate — though Van Smeerdijk says his company offers "local" rates to South Africans and Namibians when foreign numbers are down.
He argues that, like Botswana, which aims its tourism unashamedly at the high-end market, Namibia has the potential to drastically increase foreign visitor numbers. There is talk of the government releasing state-owned, protected land in undertapped areas, such as Caprivi and Kunene, for low-density, environmentally sensitive tourism development. "We’ve barely scratched the surface of what is possible," he says.
Wiemers doesn’t want to see too much emphasis on the top-end market. "We have some fantastic properties for the five-star visitor, but the majority of visitors are more budget conscious and fall into the middle-spend market segment."
Promotional activities by the Namibian Tourism Board and individual operators have had a big impact on visitor numbers. Where once Air Namibia and Lufthansa dominated the market, now plenty of international airlines fly in and out. By one estimate, however, tourism bed occupancy is below 60%. The capacity for more visitors, particularly from SA, is considerable.
Late last year, I drove from Swakopmund to Etosha. SA is not short of long open roads, but there is a greater sense of remoteness on Namibia’s major highways — despite frequent police roadblocks in the middle of nowhere. Mostly the delay is no more than a few seconds for your documents to be checked, but sometimes you may meet an officer, as we did, who believes his role is to be as slow and offensive as possible.
This remoteness also applies within Etosha. Game sightings were plentiful but, unlike in some SA parks where the appearance of a lion or leopard can cause a traffic jam of dozens of vehicles, we had animals to ourselves. The sight of 18 giraffe nonchalantly drinking from a waterhole a few metres away, while a solitary hyena rolled around in the water in front of them, was special.
Also, where in SA would authorities let you sit on a busy tourist airstrip sipping cocktails and watching the sun sink below the horizon?
Wiemers says: "Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world … It is an ideal self-drive destination for SA residents. Many say afterwards that they felt like an early explorer."
He stresses that South Africans should understand that their neighbour is not a carbon copy of their own country. "As an industry, we need to work on improving the image of Namibia as a unique destination that is safe, accessible and affordable for South Africans. But they must realise it is very different from SA and people need an open mind when looking at it as a possible holiday destination."