Text Willie Olivier
Rewind to 1993 – three years after Namibia became independent.
Namibia records 181,000 holiday tourists, among them 25,000 who gave visiting friends and relatives as the reason for their visit.
In anticipation of a boom in tourism, the number of accommodation establishments has increased from about 150 before independence to just over 200 in 1993. Pioneers like the Canyon Hotel in Keetmanshoop, the Safari Hotel in Windhoek, Sinclair Guest Farm, Bambatsi Guest Farm, Toshari Inn, Mount Etjo Safari Lodge and Düsternbrook Guest Farm north of Windhoek ranked among the top. For bus tours travelling to and from Sesriem the only overnight accommodation was the Maltahöhe Hotel – a journey of 165 km.
South Africa remained the most important source market for international tourism with 105,000 South Africans coming for holidays in 1993. South African visitors headed for the fishing waters at the coast, to Swakopmund, to Etosha National Park and other rest camps in state-owned parks and resorts.
Germany was the second-most important market with just over 28,000 Germans visiting Namibia for holidays. Other European countries accounted for a little more than 20,500 holiday tourists. Many opted for guest farm stays and visits to Swakopmund, Etosha and the Namib.
The extensive network of gravel roads was well maintained and in an excellent condition. But you could drive for many kilometres before coming across a fellow traveller. I recall travelling from Windhoek through the Khomas Hochland to Swakopmund on several occasions on a Friday afternoon. The only traffic was maybe two vehicles heading in the opposite direction. Making your way up Spreetshoogte after rains was almost impossible at times – even in a four-wheel drive vehicle.
I could travel in Damaraland for days without passing another vehicle. The route through the Messum Crater was a narrow single track and the Kaokoveld lived up to its reputation of The Last Wilderness. Only a handful of intrepid travellers ventured as far north as the Epupa Falls.
Self-drives for overseas visitors were unheard of, so most foreign visitors were either collected at Windhoek International Airport by their hosts or booked tours with the two major coach safari companies: Springbok Atlas and SWA Safaris with their all-too-familiar familiar green Mercedes Benz coaches with the zebra logo.
I vividly remember clambering up Dune 45 on my way to Sossusvlei with no other person in sight. Dune 45 was no exception though. At virtually all tourist attractions you would find only a handful of people… until a tour bus arrived.
German culinary specialties and delicacies were widely available in Windhoek, Swakopmund, Tsumeb and a few other towns. Several restaurants in Windhoek served typical German cuisine, and at lunch time Café Schneider in Hepworth Arcade (later renamed A B May Arcade after a previous city mayor) was filled to capacity with German-speaking businessmen enjoying the typical German dish of the day prepared by Chef Klaus Buchmann. Central Café, a short distance away in the same arcade, was another popular meeting place of politicians and businessmen.
For fresh bread there was no better place than queueing at Kehrer’s Backparadies in Wecke & Voigt’s in Independence Avenue. And when travelling out of Windhoek you could buy freshly baked German-style bread and confectionary in many towns: the Hansa and the Putensen Bäckerei in Swakopmund, Omaruru Dampfbäckerei, Carstensen Bäckerei in Otjiwarongo, Outjo Bäckerei, Bäckerei Dekker in Okahandja and Willi Probst Bäckerei in Walvis Bay.
No visit to Swakopmund was complete without dinner at Kücki’s Pub and a visit to Café Anton for a cup of coffee with a slice of mouth-watering Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte before heading back to Windhoek. Erich’s Restaurant, also in Swakopmund, was famous for its seafood and I recall the rather exotic Lady Curzon Turtle Soup on its menu.
Fast Forward to 2023. Namibia’s tourism industry is recovering to the pre-COVID 19 pandemic level. Nearly 1,6 million holiday tourist arrivals were recorded in 2019, compared to 181,000 in 1993. The number of holiday tourists from Europe increased ten-fold over the same period. And the number of accommodation establishments had increased to over 2,500!
Gone are the days of driving from Windhoek to Swakopmund through the Khomas Hochland and passing only one or two vehicles along the way. Gone are the days of enjoying Dune 45 all to myself. Sadly, some of the pioneering accommodation establishments and eateries have long since closed shop. But, on the positive side, there are now many new establishments and eateries to choose from.
Tourism is a major contributor to Namibia’s economy. But maybe it’s time to decide whether this country with its fragile environment should really opt for mass tourism and risk killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg or rather go for high-value, low-impact tourism – without excluding Namibians from exploring their own country.