Our present-day actions and the policies that guide them are able to have impacts, both positive and negative, that extend well into the future.
According to Jacquie Tarr, a freelance writer on environmental issues, creating a vision for Namibia that looks forward over a period of 20 – 30 years has become an essential part of the country’s national planning strategy. This applies particularly to the rapidly expanding tourism industry, which hovers precariously between attracting large amounts of revenue and causing undue environmental damage that will harm the very foundation on which tourism depends.
Throughout the world the concept of sustainability has taken hold and, as stated by Professor Okigbo of Ghana in a 1995 World Bank report, it is the duty of every country today to ensure that “…the oceans and land, and their associated natural resources, must be regarded as a sacred trust bequeathed to us by our ancestors. This resource base must be handed over to future generations intact or in an enhanced condition”.
Meeting this goal is not easy, particularly for countries like Namibia that depend heavily on their natural resources. However, the lessons learnt from other countries warn us that if poor resource management practices are allowed to dominate, the country’s natural capital will be eroded and the ability of the environment to support the economy and provide essential services will be disrupted.
Like all other economic activities, tourism uses resources, produces wastes and creates environmental, social and cultural costs and benefits in the process. Rapid growth in tourism aiming at short-term benefits usually results in more negative than positive impacts, including the degeneration of traditions and cultural values, and environmental damage to tourist sites and natural settings. Pollution and waste generated by development of tourism facilities, transportation and tourist activities themselves are identified as the major causes of environmental impacts associated with tourism. As these impacts accumulate, they begin to destroy the very foundation on which tourism thrives.
In the face of population growth, improved living standards, increasing free time and the expansion of transportation systems, global tourism is expected to continue to boom. Forecasts show that over the next two decades the number of people seeking holiday destinations away from their home country is likely to triple. As a result of this huge expansion, popular tourist sites will face increasing pressure. Quite clearly, although tourism has tremendous potential to attract revenue to a country and serve as a tool for poverty alleviation and the conservation of both cultural and natural assets, it is largely unable to do so in the absence of environmentally and culturally conscious planning that is laid down within a long-term vision.
Namibia’s tourism sector grew by an estimated 14% per annum between 1990 and 1996. It is an important employment generator that attracts revenue through the provision of many diverse services including accommodation, restaurants, transport, nature-centred entertainment and financial services. As the incremental expenditure by tourists circulates through the economy, it has a ‘multiplier’ economic impact. Consequently the full contribution of this sector to the national economy and poverty alleviation is underestimated.
Certainly, the annual growth rate of hotels and restaurants, which are generally referred to in the national accounts as indicators of tourism growth, provide only a small part of the picture. For instance, the total value of revenue derived from trophy hunting alone is estimated to be N$130 million per annum. This industry employs approximately 3 000 people, both directly and indirectly through related activities. In 1996 legislation was passed that declared rights to communities that had registered conservancies for the management of wildlife and tourism. Earnings from these activities, which have helped to alleviate poverty in Namibia’s rural areas, increased almost seven-fold between 1996 and 2000, from N$0.5 million to N$3.4 million.
Although not specifically created for the tourism sector, a unifying strategic national plan for all natural resource use in Namibia – one that epitomises the concept of sustainable development and that looks well beyond the current five-year development plans – has been developed through Namibia’s national VISION 2030 project. An important conclusion emerging from this project is the fact that Namibia is still in an enviable position to be able to avoid some of the negative impacts of development that many other nations have suffered in the past. However, regarding the rapidly growing tourism sector, this does demand immediate action both from Government and from the tourism industry itself.
Focused political will and good governance are essential, and carefully thought-out actions, policies and legislation, some of which are seemingly unrelated to tourism, need to be implemented as soon as possible. These include:
• Finalising land redistribution and resettlement issues. Political stability and low levels of crime are paramount to growth within the tourism industry. There is an urgent need for an accelerated and comprehensive land redistribution and resettlement programme that avoids confrontation and conflict, prevents environmental degradation, and promotes equity and co-operation amongst all stakeholders. This programme must incorporate sound economic and ecological criteria and the need to protect “agriculturally under-utilised” land that has high potential for other forms of land use such as tourism, but low potential for farming activities.
• Expanding the protected areas network. Namibia’s national parks and reserves were not designed for biodiversity conservation. As a result, the country’s ecological diversity is not evenly represented within the 13.6% of the landmass that represents Namibia’s protected areas. Current protected areas incorporate only nine of the 14 vegetation types described for Namibia, and, although 30% the Namib Desert biome falls within protected land, less than 9%, 8% and 2% of the Woodland, Savannah and Karoo biomes respectively are currently protected. There is a need to ensure that all under-protected natural habitats, including virtually all of the country’s natural wetlands and the centres of plant and animal endemism within the pro-Namib, receive adequate protection. The establishment of such reserves could aid research and generate funds from tourism activities such as sport fishing and sightseeing.
• Extending conservancies into all areas that have a high potential for tourism. In addition to increasing the number of protected areas, there must be continued emphasis on encouraging wildlife conservation through sustainable use of wild animals and plants on freehold and communal land outside the protected areas. To date conservancy development has focused on communal land where healthy wildlife populations still exist or where good habitat offers opportunities for re-establishing wildlife, mainly in the north-eastern parts of the country. The new Parks and Wildlife Bill, currently under discussion, must be promulgated as soon as possible, as it explores ways of creating incentives for landowners and managers to diversify into wildlife and tourism in more efficient and cost-effective ways, thus helping to conserve biodiversity and preserve Namibia’s tourism product.
• Establishing an Environmental Investment Fund (EIF). Currently, the revenue generated in Namibia’s national parks and reserves goes back to Central Government. Namibia’s proposed EIF will ensure that at least part of the revenue generated from these tourism activities will be used to help conserve the environmental resource base on which tourism depends. A survey conducted in 1995 showed that Namibian and foreign tourists were willing to pay an average of N$151 million more per annum than they actually paid for wildlife viewing. This extra revenue could be used directly for investment in the boosting the wildlife sector through the EIF and/or investment in community development.
• Finalising the Environmental Management Bill, which specifies that social and environmental issues must be properly considered in the development of all future policies, plans, programmes and projects. This offers opportunities for preventative management and will help to avoid future damage to Namibian ecosystems and resources by development activities, including those involved in tourism expansion.
• Improving pollution control through the introduction of the Pollution and Waste Management Control Bill. Although Namibia is currently considered to be one of Africa’s cleanest countries, it has a growing pollution problem that will not improve unless concerted efforts are made to abate litter. In addition high health standards must be maintained in order for the country to preserve its tourism product.
A survey conducted in 1997 showed that most visitors to Namibia expect a high-quality, nature-centred experience. Consequently, the tourism sector is largely dependent on the country’s natural capital, in particular healthy wildlife and fish populations, panoramic scenery and litter-free, wide-open, natural spaces. Preservation of this tourism product is essential if the industry is to continue to generate wealth and alleviate poverty. In 1999 the World Tourism Organisation estimated that tourism in Namibia and other Southern African countries is likely to grow at an average rate of 7.5% per annum. How long this growth period will continue and whether or not tourism will remain a high earner on a sustainable basis once the initial growth rate tails off, is obviously coupled with how well the industry is able to balance expansion into new localities without threatening the country’s attractive tourism product.
Examples where expansion for low-impact, high-quality, nature-centred tourism can be developed include:
• Specialised visits to the offshore islands, which provide safe habitats for several species of sea and shorebirds, including African penguins, Cape gannets, Hartlaub’s gulls, African black oystercatchers and Cape, Bank and Crowned cormorants. These visits should allow small groups of tourists the opportunity to observe the rich avifauna of these localities but should avoid, at all costs, disturbing the birds that use these islands as sanctuaries for breeding and roosting;
• Development of the full tourism potential of Namibia’s most important coastal wetland system, the Walvis Bay Lagoon
• Development of specialised and exclusive photographic safaris targeting Namibia’s arid-adapted endemic species located within the succulent steppe vegetation belt in the winter rainfall area of the Sperrgebiet; and
• Formation of new conservancies in suitable rural and freehold farming areas.
Proclamation of the Walvis Bay Lagoon as a nature reserve
The Walvis Bay Lagoon provides valuable nursery areas for certain coastal fish species and feeding grounds for vast numbers of flamingos, pelicans and many other species of resident and Palaearctic sea and shorebirds, the numbers of which can reach up to 150 000 individuals (excluding Cape cormorants) during the summer months. As part of Namibia’s sustainable long-term vision for tourism, Government must proclaim this area as a nature reserve as a matter of urgency and implement the zoning proposals already contained in the Walvis Bay Lagoon Management Plan, which was drawn up through multi-stakeholder consultation in 1998.
These proposals promote low-impact nature-centred activities in the bird-rich, environmentally sensitive sections of the lagoon, whilst other activities (such as power boating and fishing) are strictly limited to the less sensitive areas. Activities such as kayak safaris already confirm that the Walvis Bay Lagoon area has tremendous tourism potential for whale, seal and bird watching.
While there is no doubt that there are many opportunities for new tourism enterprises in Namibia, before these can be exploited it is imperative that a clear vision is defined specifically for the tourism sector. Undeniably, an essential part of this process hinges on being able to identify the most viable land-use options for Namibia’s thirteen regions. Notwithstanding the country’s low capability for agriculture, subsidies to farmers give agricultural activities an advantage over other viable land uses in the country. Consequently there is a strong need to promote fully integrated land-use planning and appropriate land uses that are based on sound economic and ecological criteria.
These land-use plans must set clear guidelines and parameters for how each region should be developed and zoned, so that some areas support mining, others agriculture or tourism. The guidelines must stipulate, for example, that off-road driving and high-volume tourism can be allowed only in certain areas, but definitely not in others, particularly those areas that support a high degree of species endemism or environmental fragility. Moreover, the development and implementation of these land-use plans must encourage the active participation of all stakeholders, including communities that have formed conservancies, private landowners with adjoining protected areas, local authorities and mining companies. Once adequate land-use plans are in place, the next step is to ensure that all new tourism developments incorporate as many of the guidelines laid down by the World Commission on Sustainable Development as possible. Ultimately these guidelines should form the backbone of Namibia’s long-term vision for tourism.
Guidelines for sustainable tourism
In order to advance sustainable tourism, the World Commission on Sustainable Development urges governments to:-
• Consult local communities in the tourism development process and to enable sharing in both management and benefits;
• Build capacity with indigenous and local people communities in order to facilitate their active participation at all levels of the tourism development process and to create awareness of the social, economic and environmental costs and benefits associated with tourism activities;
• Promote a favourable framework for small and medium-sized enterprises by reducing administrative burdens, facilitating access to capital and providing training in management;
• Take strong action through the development and enforcement of specific legislation against any kind of illegal, abusive or exploitative tourist activity, including the damaging of historical sites;
• Collect and disseminate information on best practices and techniques, including a mix of approaches that will minimise the negative and promote the positive environmental, social and cultural impacts from tourism.
The World Commission on Sustainable Development also urges the tourism industry to:
• Provide all tourists with information on ecological and cultural values within the country of destination.
• Take effective steps to reduce the volume of waste associated with travel and tourism activities;
• Design tourist enterprises “with nature” – in other words, use low-impact designs, materials and technologies, so as not to damage the environmental or cultural assets that tourists seek to experience and that sustain the local community;
• Distance itself publicly from any illegal, abusive or exploitative forms of tourism;
• Meet and preferably exceed relevant national labour standards.
Contrary to popular belief, tourism expansion need not necessarily demand large amounts of capital expenditure. Certainly, preserving Namibia’s tourism product will not depend on establishing bigger and better hotels, casinos and other typical infrastructure geared towards mass tourism and commonly found in tourist meccas all over the world.
However tempting it is to embark on ventures that aim at mass tourism, this must remain limited to localities such as Etosha, where the infrastructure to cope with several large busloads of tourists is already in place. Preserving Namibia’s tourism product does, however, require careful management of wildlife populations and a concerted effort to leave as much of the country’s natural scenic beauty as undisturbed as possible, so that generations of bird watchers, hikers, sport fisherman and high-paying trophy hunters will continue to choose this over other destinations within the highly competitive tourism market.
While Namibia makes moves to ensure that the tourism sector develops along a more sustainable path, it is heartening to see that pressure to adopt sustainable approaches to tourism is beginning to come from the tourists themselves. Increasing numbers of tourists from developed countries are selecting tour companies that have a responsible tourism policy and that actively pursue ethical practices which neither harm the environment nor place unnecessary pressure on local communities.
These discerning travellers, who feel that they have a right to know what impacts their money and holidays may have on the people and environment of the countries they visit, are the kind of tourists we hope to attract to Namibia in the decades to come.