Namibia lies far from Africa's 'original' big-game safari areas of East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania, and from the newer destinations of Zimbabwe and Zambia. Aside from Etosha and Caprivi, Namibia doesn't have the density of game that visitors would expect for such a trip, or the warm tropical shores that they would expect for a beach holiday (anyone who has been to Lüderitz will surely agree).
Thus Namibia doesn't generally attract first-time visitors who simply want to tick off game, or see game and lie on a beach. This combination accounts for much volume in the travel business. Therefore few cheap charter planes arrive in Namibia, and there is only a handful of large hotels, most of which aim more for business people than tourists.
The main area of growth in Namibia's tourism is in self-drive individual trips and small-group tours. These are perfect for the small lodges and guest farms, which can't take big groups anyhow. It is allowing many small-scale tourist ventures to develop and thrive – utilising not only the few famous national parks, but also old cattle ranches and otherwise unproductive sections of desert.
In the long term, this is a huge advantage for the country. Tourism is set to continue growing slowly but steadily – but without the boom-then-bust experienced by countries like Kenya. Every month new small camps, lodges and guest farms open for visitors; most try hard to retain that feeling of 'wilderness' which is so rare in more densely populated countries, and much sought after by visitors. Namibia has so much space and spectacular scenery that, provided the developments remain small-scale and responsible, it should have a very long and profitable career in tourism ahead.
Perhaps Namibia's most promising developments in this field are its successes in linking tourism with community development projects. The Community Game Guard scheme has already safeguarded the populations of desert-adapted elephants and black rhino in the Kaokoveld, whilst a number of community campsites are thriving in the area.
Both projects are now extending their reach in the Caprivi area, assisted by trail-blazing individuals and organisations like the IRDNC. Tourism is a vital source of revenue for many of these projects and, if it helps to provide employment and bring foreign exchange into Namibia, this gives the politicians a reason to support environmental conservation.
The tourist's responsibility
Visitors on an expensive trip to Namibia are, by their mere presence, making some financial contribution to development and conservation in Namibia. There are several things that they can do to maximise this.
If camping, they can seek out the community campsites, and support them. They can use the local people there for guides, and pay for the facilities. Even travellers on a lower budget can thus have a direct impact on some of Namibia's smaller, rural communities.
If staying in lodges, they can ask the lodge operator, in the most penetrating of terms, what he or she is doing to help local development initiatives. How much of the lodge's revenue goes directly back to the local community? How do the people benefit directly from the visitors staying at this
camp? How much of a say do they have about what goes on in the area where these
safaris are operated?
If enough visitors did this, it would make a big difference. All Namibia's operators would start to place development initiatives higher on their list of priorities. At present, a few operators have really excellent forward-thinking ways of helping their local communities – Damaraland Camp being a real flagship, and the focus for much attention.
Some others make a form of 'charity' donation to local communities, but otherwise only involve local people as workers. Whilst this is valuable, much more is needed. Local people must gain greater and more direct benefits from tourism if conservation is going to be successful in Africa, and Namibia is no exception.