travel namibia


issue 6 2011

 

Namibia has a reputation for delivering friendly hospitality and good quality

service. But it’s not without its challenges, as Claire Connolly finds in conversation with Stephan Brückner, Managing Director of Wolwedans in the NamibRand Nature Reserve

 

What are your top three places in Namibia and why?

I think the entire western part of Namibia is awesome territory and unique to Africa. You might get similar landscapes up in the Sahara but you don’t get elephants and rhinos roaming up there.

 

When you are out of the country, what is the thing you miss the most?

The wide-open spaces, the easiness of life here, and the fact that there aren’t many people are what I love most about Namibia.

 

What is so special about NamibRand?

The scenic beauty is extraordinarily diverse. There are many different ecosystems, dunes, plains and very impressive mountain ranges. It’s a combination of all these things that make NamibRand special. For a tourist, it’s probably going to be the most impressive landscape they’ll see during their entire travels. There are not many private places on the western fringes of Namibia where you have dunes, but within the NamibRand we have a dune belt that stretches across the entire nature reserve.

 

What is NamibRand?

It’s a private conservation area of over 170,000 hectares, where we rehabilitate vast tracks of land from being former sheep farms and cattle ranches into a pristine nature conservancy. Funding is derived from tourism, both through tours and our Wolwedans Collection of lodges. It’s a concept that was pioneering when we started, and which we’re hoping to expand by integrating neighbouring land.

 

How do you reinvest in the conservancy and community projects?

Every guest to the NamibRand pays a conservation levy, or park fee, that is collected on behalf of the reserve. Last year Wolwedans collected N$ 1.7 million, which went straight into the conservation of the NamibRand reserve. We also pledge a third of profits to our Wolwedans Foundation and to the support of other conservation projects. Historically there haven’t been people on the NamibRand land, which is mostly desert. Now our camps collectively employ a few hundred people whose livelihoods depend on the reserve. We also offer vocational training and education support, and invest in businesses that aren’t necessarily related to tourism but need help getting started.

 

What is the best way to get around Namibia?

This depends on time and budget, but if travelling for the average two weeks, a mixture of self-drive and flying is a great option. Visitors get a major kick out of driving for three hours without encountering any traffic, and from seeing the country from the air. We feel that the best way to plan your itinerary is anti-clockwise. We’ve found that people don’t appreciate the beautiful landscapes of the NamibRand if they haven’t yet seen their elephants and lions. So start up north and make your way south.

 

How are service standards within Namibia?

Every tourism establishment has its own standard. There’s a fine balance in providing a good service but not overdoing it. The problem we have is that tourism is growing rapidly and at this stage there isn’t a meaningful vocational training initiative. Most people are training on the job, so the whole concept of service is a bit of a challenge.

 

What are the challenges facing tourism to Namibia, and how should it be managed?

There is room for growth in tourism across most of Namibia, but it has to be done responsibly and sensibly. The core risk of tourism growth is that Namibia does not have the human capacity to manage it properly, and our reputation as a holiday destination could be damaged by bad service experiences. We’re going to need to manage traffic at Sossusvlei, where the bottleneck is starting to cause congestion, and over-use of the land. However stopping tourists visiting would be like telling an American in Paris not to visit the Eiffel Tower. An option is to have people flown in and out of the area daily. This is not an ideal solution but it would provide for some relief to the land.

 

Does Namibia do enough in terms of cultural conservation?

Cultural tourism is very important, but ‘progress’ can’t be stopped and I don’t think people can be told to live like nomads because that is what European tourists would like to see. There will be a time when local cultures will no longer wear their traditional dress, will walk around with mobile phones and drink Coca-Cola instead of sour milk. What tourism does is create an incentive to preserve culture by generating interest in it.

 

How does tourism benefit Namibians?

Tourism is an incredible engine for providing a better livelihood. It’s very job-intensive and it doesn’t take rocket science to be successful – all you need is the right attitude.

 

Are there times of the year when it is just too uncomfortable to visit Namibia?

Namibia is a year-round destination. The tourist season is determined primarily by European travel patterns. For example mid-May to the end of June is the best time to visit but it doesn’t fall within European holidays and is therefore quiet.

 

How does Namibia compete with neighbouring countries that offer vast amounts of wildlife?

The unique selling points of Namibia are the wide- open spaces and the desert because they are rare experiences.

 

We know that your camps – like many others around the country – have been built with natural materials and were made to blend into the surroundings. Why was this important?

From the word go it was very important to me to keep a very low footprint. All our camps are built with an ethos of treading lightly on the environment so that if we are gone one day then nature can reclaim its territory. The dunes would take about eight weeks to sweep the remains of the camp away, and there would be no sign that people once stayed there.

 

What other ‘green’ measures do you take?

All our camps are run on solar power. We are now in the process of converting all our gas refrigeration to solar.

 

Were there challenges in making the camps so ‘open plan’?

Being so open affects the workings of the camp, but there’s a compromise. You can’t expect on one hand to feel you are at one with nature and on the other to have all the comforts of a concrete hotel where you can slide your glass window closed to keep the elements out. It can be a struggle, but our experience has shown that people are up for it because the alternative isn’t an option for us.