Broadening Namibia′s horizons with eco-tourism | Global Ideas | DW | 15.03.2011
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Broadening Namibia's horizons with eco-tourism

Namibia's deserts and unspoilt nature attract thousands of tourists every year. With many increasingly interested in sustainable holidaying, Namibia is now focusing on regenerative energies and protecting biodiversity.

Sand dunes in the Namib desert in Namibia

The sun-drenched Namib desert is both a spectacular sight and a source of solar energy

The sun rising over the Namib Desert and bathing the landscape in a rosy glow is a spectacle most tourists to Namibia don’t want to miss – even though climbing the towering, 3 million-year-old red sand dunes around the Sossusvlei salt and clay pan is quite a challenge first thing in the morning.

But the view from the top is worth the effort: a rippling desert reaching endlessly into the distance, with just a few isolated roads weaving through it.

Sights like these attract growing numbers of tourists to Namibia. It’s become especially popular among Germans, not least because many locals speak their language. Until 1915, Namibia was a German colony. Moreover, relative political stability and a low risk of malaria make it an exotic but safe destination.

Tourism as a motor of green growth

On the one hand, the flourishing tourism industry is good news for the many Namibians who depend on it for their livelihoods. But on the other hand, the growing numbers of visitors are hard to reconcile with the government’s stated environmental priorities. Namibia has a population of just two million – and now attracts nearly one million tourists a year.

Water is a precious commodity here, and tourists consume it liberally – as well as the country’s limited electricity supply. Namibia gets most of its electricity from neighbouring South Africa. In peak periods, up to 80 percent of electricity is imported.

The solution is to focus on eco-tourism – low-impact, responsible travel that conserves the environment. This would also tally with what visitors to Namibia want: according to a recent World Wide Fund for Nature survey, 25 percent of Germans want their holidays to be environmentally responsible.

No government support

Entrepreneur Andrew Gillies can confirm they mean it. Originally from South Africa, he and his company Eco Lodgistix operate five eco-lodges in Namibia. One of them is the DesertHomestead Lodge, just a few kilometres from Sossusvlei. Guests stay in rooms entirely lit and air conditioned by solar power.

“It’s not a new concept, but we see more and more tourists specifically asking where we get our power from,” he says. But renewable energies aren’t cheap.

“The Namibian government doesn’t subsidize solar energy,“ says Gillies. “So we have invest a lot of money upfront.” Without thriving tourism, this would be impossible.

Eco Lodgistix is funded by the EU. So is Grootberg Lodge, southwest of the Etosha national park. This is the first middle-market establishment in the country that is 100 percent owned by the community – a rare phenomenon in a country still largely in the hands of white landowners.

Projects like the Grootberg Lodge allow locals to benefit from tourism and moreover provide them with an incentive to give up hunting as a source of income, which, in turn, protects biodiversity.

“We want to reduce conflicts between humans and animals and promote peaceful coexistence,” says Gillies.

The Wilderness Safaris project which was founded in 1983 has a similar agenda.

“We’re both a safari operator and an environmental group,” says Helen Daffner. Tourists who opt for Wilderness Safaris stay overnight in eco-campsites, where the desert sun provides electricity and toilets are flushed with rainwater. The company ploughs back part of its turnover into animal and plant species protection such as the “Save the Rhino Trust“ initiative.

Passing the buck to travel agents

Other hotel owners and safari operators are also geared towards sustainability.

“Tourism in Namibia is characterized by environmental concerns,” confirms Wolfgang Trasdas, professor for sustainable tourism at the University of Applied Sciences in Eberswalde in eastern Germany. “People have understood that nature and biodiversity are economic resources.”

Trasdas is currently conducting research in Namibia and welcomes the sight of solar panels rather than standard diesel generators on the roof of a lodge. He strongly believes that tourism can be a catalyst in the introduction of clean energy technologies.

The scope is certainly vast: These days, many hotels and lodges boast eco certification. The ball is now in the court of the tour operators.

“The tourism industry has completely failed to adequately promote sustainable travel,“ says Trasdas. Unless consumers specifically ask about eco tourism, it remains a well-kept secret.

Author: Anja Koch (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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