The history of the Namibia Tourism Expo

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Text Rieth van Schalkwyk

The first tourism expo in 1999 set the stage for big dreams to become a successful reality. Rieth van Schalkwyk, editor of Travel News Namibia, invites you on the journey which started when she, her husband Paul and Willem Moore met in the Venture office 17 years ago, laying the foundation of what was to become one of the most successful annual tourism events in Namibia which put tourism on the Namibian map and raised the status of the sector.

CYMOT, the first Namibian company to sign up for Expo ’99.
Karin Boettger, volunteered to guide Expo City Tours from the venue in Olympia.
Kobus Basson of Kleine Zalze, one of 20 SA wine producers at the Expo ’99 Food & Wine Festival.
The opening of the Hilde List Loft in the Namibia Craft Centre was the first Expo event in ’99.

W hile the world worried about what the new millennium would bring and whether all computers would crash and turn life upside down, our small group set plans into action. We dreamed big, but would local businesses join in the fun? Would we have the buy-in of the tourism sector?

June 1999 – Before the millennium dawned, the first Namibia Holiday & Travel Expo took place in Windhoek. We named it after the tourism directory with the same title, published by Venture Publications since 1993 and endorsed as the Official Tourism Directory of Namibia by the Tourism Minister of that time, Philemon Malima. Full of enthusiasm and big dreams, the small team at Venture started to plan an Expo that would inspire Namibians. Our aim was to expose the nation to everything related to tourism in our own country. We believed that this platform for tourism promotion could become Namibia’s tourism window to the world and that international operators and future business partners would eventually come to see what we had to offer.

On a cold June morning in 1999, I was racing against time to put flyers on windscreens along Independence Avenue in Windhoek. There was a banner across the street from the M&Z building to what is now Home Affairs, announcing the Namibia Holiday & Travel Expo. After two blocks I realised that this was a jeans and sneakers type of job and I was not going to get it done in heels. Our team was thinly spread and everyone had to do whatever needed to be done.

At the event venue in Olympia, outdoor enthusiasts could sign up for a fresh water fishing competition, take their 4x4s off-road on a route outside Windhoek, test their skills at a PROAMM and clay pigeon shooting competitions or join a rock-climbing excursion to the Climbing Garden south of Windhoek. The Mountaineering Club shared their knowledge of the best climbing routes and used the opportunity to sign up new members. The Namibian hiking club, Dorsland Voetslaners, distributed maps and information on the large number and variety of hiking routes throughout the country. If the coast were closer, there would have been more opportunity to show off the multitude of water activities. Namibian author Piet van Rooyen, an organiser of the annual Endurance Horse Ride, offered rides for Expo visitors and even invited children to ride under the supervision of experienced riders.

Preparations for the Food & Wine Festival, with demonstrations and lectures on “Food in Africa” were underway at the Windhoek Country Club. 20 recipients of the Michelangelo Wine Awards in South Africa were ready to introduce their wines, paired with delicacies from Namibia. Namibian chefs were competing at the Hospitality Training Centre for a trip to one of Europe’s finest cordon bleu schools in Paris. Dave Hughes, back then one of the most respected wine experts on the continent, entertained Namibians with wine and brandy tastings. Renata Coetzee, lecturer and expert in African traditional food, shared her knowledge and inspired local chefs to adapt traditional cuisine for the modern palate. At the stalls visitors were treated to Lüderitz oysters, ostrich meat prepared in various ways, Namibian biltong, traditional German fair and even organic vegetables, not to mention dried mopane worms, a traditional delicacy from the north.

That first year our aim was to demonstrate to Namibians that there was much more to tourism than hotels and tourists. Visitors could join lectures on Birding for Beginners and excursions with seasoned birders. Helmuth zur Strassen’s astronomy lecture was packed to capacity.  Helmuth, who also lectured at The Namibia Academy of Tourism and Hospitality (NATH), the first accredited tourism training institution for tour guides in Namibia, inspired old and young to make a career in tourism, or at least enrol for courses such as Birding, Fauna and Flora, Geology, History, Astronomy – even basic mechanics and first aid.

45 exhibitors lined the walls of the Expo hall in 1999. Rural towns took the plunge without knowing if they would get a return on their investment. Tourism operators, hotels, lodges and guest farms joined forces to show off their tourism highlights. Marion Schelkle manned a stall for Lüderitz, a trailblazer for her town to this day. Gita Pätzholt took care of the stall representing HAN members, many of whom bought into the Expo dream and still participate, not as one of 45 but by now hundreds of exhibitors. For many Namibians the 1999 Expo was their first acquaintance with NACOBTA (the Namibia Community Based Tourism Association) and the products which its members offer, from curios to camping sites in rural Namibia.

Stefan Brückner (centre) of Wolwedans
Mia De Klerk, Miss Namibia 2000
Windhoek Mayor Matheus Shikongo with FENATA CEO Jackie Asheeke and HAN Chairman Brian Black
Anette Gross’ winning photo for Wildlife in the TASA Photo Competition
Gondwana Collection provided entertainment since the early years with innovative activities and exhibits,

To help us open local eyes to what tourists find interesting in the capital, Inge Glaue and Karin Böttger, members of the Tour Guide Association of Namibia, offered to guide visitors on Expo City Tours, sponsored by Trans Namibia and Oryx Tours. One of the highlights during that first year was the Crafts Alive Exhibition and the opening of the Hilde List Loft at the Namibia Craft Centre. The NCC formed part of the Craft Route to crafts venues throughout the capital. The Expo City Tours stopped at places such as Penduka and the National Art Gallery. In later years the Crafts Alive Exhibition occupied a large part of an exhibition hall at the Expo, always representing local artists and crafters.

Local golfers were adamant that their passion should be part of a tourism expo. We did not argue, because in our magazines we proudly write about the quaint golf courses in rural Namibia. All the prizes at that first Expo Golf Day at the Windhoek Country Club were weekends at lodges and guest farms, sponsored by members of the Hospitality Association.

With the enthusiastic support of the Tour & Safari Association we launched the TASA Photographic competition in 1999. The main component of tourism marketing is visual, and photos are therefore an indispensible component, we reasoned.

Our aim with this competition was to encourage local photographers to share their talent and thus prove that they could expertly capture the beauty and magic of Namibia.  We were convinced that by giving local photographers exposure, the industry would use their services instead of importing skills.

Amy Schoeman, acclaimed photographer and a member of our Venture team at the time, invited award-winning photographer and President of the SA Institute of Professional Photographers, Mike Reed, to head the panel of judges.  21 photographers entered 497 transparencies in seven categories.  40 finalists were printed at one of the best photographic laboratories in southern Africa and these stunning photographs were exhibited at the Expo. TASA sponsored prize money for the winner, and TASA members chose which category winner to sponsor. The competition ended in 2005 with the advent of digital photography.

And so the millennium dawned on us, the world did not turn upside down, no systems crashed to bring civilization to a halt and in Namibia the tourism mood was buoyant as ever. Feedback on the first Holiday & Travel Expo was so good that we realised the event would have to grow, but we were too small. As a publishing company with magazines targeting the international travel trade, we needed a local partner to reach a local audience. We believed that this platform for tourism promotion could become Namibia’s tourism window to the world.

Venture could never have achieved the success of the Namibia Tourism Expo on its own. We simply did not have the resources. When we invited Die Republikein newspaper to join us as co-hosts in 2000 and they appointed Glenda Manthe-Grobler as the organiser, supported by the entire Republikein team, the Expo soared. For the next 15 years Glenda and her husband Jan Grobler met every challenge of the successful, ever-expanding event with the support of the Management and MD of Democratic Media Holdings, Chrisna Greeff. The Expo outgrew Olympia, then WCCR and after two years even the Old SKW/Brauhaus as well. It finally settled at the Windhoek Showgrounds in 2003.

Free to dream on, the Venture team now focussed on the Expo mission of inclusion. The Namibia Tourism Board was formed in 2001 and Gideon Shilongo was appointed as CEO. For the first time the Expo was officially opened and he did the honours. With his blessing and the enthusiasm of the NTB’s Marketing Director, Shareen Thude, many pilot projects were initiated in 2003. The Mayor of Windhoek, Matheus Shikongo, agreed to a Windhoek Tourism Week to coincide with the Expo, and the City introduced the You Are Welcome campaign. Teens in Tourism was launched with support from the City of Windhoek’s Tourism Division, Grace Pujatura and Gladys Capuyan. Willem de Wet convinced the Hospitality Association to move their AGM to coincide with the Expo and offered to host the gala evening.

Maureen Postuma of NTB Frankfurt invited foreign media to meet exhibitors at the Expo and then travel around Namibia as a first step to introduce post event tours also for buyers and international operators. Air Namibia, by now a trusted partner, played an essential role in the success of these initiatives. NTB officially invited their counterparts in SADC to participate. Allan Kirby, President of TASA, suggested that we change the date of our Expo to inable international operators to visit us en route to the South African travel trade show, INDABA. Namibian NGOs, conservation, educational and support organisations, umbrella bodies, operators and emerging hospitality and tourism businesses joined the serious side of tourism promotion, while song, dance, food and art created the true Namibian atmosphere.

In 2006, with NTB well-established and the Republikein in full control as organiser, Venture Publications passed on the Expo baton – as we had promised to do once Namibia had an official tourism marketing body. We changed the name to Namibia Tourism Expo, commissioned Anika Jaeger to design a new logo and set about re-branding the event.

10 years later, the success of the Namibia Tourism Expo is evident. With NTB, the Ministry of Environment & Tourism, the City of Windhoek and corporate partners such as Nedbank Namibia and Bank Windhoek, the Namibia Tourism Expo is set on a path of success. Namibia Media Holdings (previously Democratic Media Holdings) with its range of newspapers serving different sectors of the Namibian society and its exceptional organisational infrastructure ensures that this event has a future.

Ron Swilling, a freelance writer for Venture, described her first visit to the Expo in an article for Flamingo: “I was suddenly a child again, wide-eyed in a candy store. Before me lay a spread of multi-coloured, multi-flavoured sweets and treats. The display in front of me was a feast for anyone with a healthy appetite for wonder.” I realised then that we have succeeded in creating an event that stood the test of time.

This article was first published in the Winter 2016 issue of Travel News Namibia.

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