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THE FAM REPORT: DISCOVERING NAMIBIA

TRAVELHotNews.com discovers what tourism in Namibia is all about
12-18-2012  By: Zachary-Cy Vanasse
THE FAM REPORT: NAMIBIA

Seated around a nicely decorated table at the Wolwedans Dune Lodge in the middle of the desert, talks turn to selling Namibia as a travel destination.

The paradox-fueled conversation is between inbound Namibian tour operators, Namibian hoteliers and those of us participating in Namibia's North American Destination Marketing (NADM) FAM trip: a mix of American tour operators, Canadian tour operators, a Canadian travel agent, a Namibia Tourism Board representative and myself.

Dinner is set at Wolwedans
Dinner is set at Wolwedans

The crux of the conversation is centred on questions of how the destination can best market itself; to what degree a significant visitor boost might be detrimental to Namibia's je ne sais quoi; and what major hurdles the destination must overcome to appeal to the North American market.

After all, for most North American travellers, Namibia is far away and relatively unknown. How do you get there and what do you do there are just some of the questions needing to be answered.

A Long Haul Destination

It had been a long flight to Windhoek, Namibia - with a transfer in Johannesburg - from New York City: about 18 hours all-tolled.  Namibia was to be my first long-haul destination and, prior to the trip, I'd been uneasy about the idea of the flight length.

To my surprise, the flight wasn't at all the grueling experience I expected.

While I was originally seated next to another passenger when my South African Airways flight left JFK, once we were at cruising altitude, the flight attendants kindly notified us that the plane was not in fact full, and that there were plenty of spots where we could have a pair of seats to ourselves. So, for the first time ever, I was able to fall asleep while flying in economy class. And when I wasn't grabbing a little shut-eye, I had a quality selection of movies and television shows to choose from. I never even pulled out the e-reader I'd purchased specifically for the journey. I did however watch a couple of movies on my 'To See' list.

I know that it has been said before, but I'll reiterate it now: you can never truly forget that you're sequestered thousands of feet above the ground for quite awhile on a long-haul flight, but there is something to be said for arriving at your destination feeling as though you've maintained your complete sanity. I touched down in Windhoek of sound mind and body, so I give credit where credit is due: well played South African Airways.

Is Namibia a long-haul destination for North Americans? No doubt. Can travellers endure the long trip and arrive feeling human? Certainly.

Big Empty Country

THE FAM REPORT: NAMIBIA

Flying into Windhoek, it is immediately evident that Namibia is a sparsely populated country. As the plane circles to land at the tiny international airport, I begin to wonder if anyone lives in the so-called city, or for that matter, if there is in fact a city at all.

It has been a couple of hours since I made my connecting flight in the very well-populated Johannesburg. As JoBurg's miles of urban sprawl disappear behind us and we cross into Namibian air space, I begin to notice that I haven't seen a trace of human civilization below in some time. That is likely because, for the most part, there isn't any.

Namibia has a population of a little more than 2 million people in a space roughly the size of British Columbia. That is to say, very few people in a lot of wide open space. On top of all that, nearly 80 per cent of all Namibians live across a thin strip in the north of the country. So when you are flying over it, it pretty much looks empty.

Now as it turns out, Windhoek International Airport isn't exactly in Windhoek. The Namibian capital is actually about a 40-minute drive away and as we make the drive from the airport to the city proper, my concerns about whether or not the city of Windhoek in fact exists are eased. There is indeed a city. A small city of less than 300,000 people. Still, it is the largest city in all of Namibia, by a long shot.

And I'm not in Windhoek long. After a quick freshen up at Galton House and an introduction to most of my fellow travellers, we are off to an ever smaller airport to board a much smaller plane. We will be heading out in to Namibia's big, open and empty country and, our pilot warns us, the flight is going to be a little bumpy.

A Photographer's Paradise

THE FAM REPORT: NAMIBIA

I'm not a fantastic photographer. I can take a good picture in the right setting and with the proper camera, but I would never describe myself as an excellent photographer. I don't understand most of the settings on a camera and I travel with whatever lens is built into the camera I have, not a whole bunch that I switch up for the ideality of the situation.

On the flight from Windhoek to our first lodge - & Beyond's Sossusvlei Desert Lodge - it becomes apparent that any person, with any skill set, on any camera, is going to come away from this place with some amazing photos.

The ever-changing landscape seems designed to be captured by photographs. I generally have a rule never to snap pictures from planes or cars, since I usually just delete them when I get home anyways. I immediately break this rule flying over Namibia's Great Escarpment and will continue to break it throughout my time in the country. The pictures will not be deleted when I get home.

!!!THE FAM REPORT: NAMIBIA

Throughout my seven days on the ground in destination I snap well over a thousand photos. They vary from sunrises to sunsets, large mammals (elephants, rhinos, leopards and cheetahs - just to name a few) birds, bugs, small mammals, tribes people, locals, mountains, desert dunes, mummified trees, rocks, lodges and on and on. And the vast majority of those pictures count among the best pictures I have ever taken in my life.

I'd love to take credit for how they turned out, but I'm afraid that credit belongs to the destination itself. Those travelling with me that have a better grasp of photography are especially appreciative of what they're able to capture with the lens.

Namibia may be sparsely populated with people, but everywhere you turn there is something else worth snapping a shot of. In fact, the lack of people might be what makes the pictures best.

Sustainability

THE FAM REPORT: NAMIBIA

During our dinner time conversation at Wolwedans, the subject of sustainable tourism is brought up. The question is posed: are sustainability and conservation something that can be successfully used as a marketing tool? Or, perhaps more to the point, do travellers really care all that much about sustainability?

Some feel that environmentally and socially responsible tourism could indeed attract a high number of visitors. Others are skeptical that great intentions do not equal great interest.

That is, until we take a tour of the Wolwedans property the following morning. There is an "experiment" taking place at Wolwedans that is looking to prove sustainability and conservation are economically feasible.

Stephen Brücker, managing director, Wolwedans explains his lodge's mission
Stephen Brücker, managing director, Wolwedans explains his lodge's mission

That seems to be because the experiment goes beyond merely attracting tourists, which is largely what makes it so attractive.

Several large solar panels at base camp, for instance, are indicative of more than simply powering an eco-wise lodge. Instead they show a potential African future. We feel the sheer intensity and power of the sun during our daily activities and Wolwedans' solar panels are a reminder that that power can be turned into electricity, lots of it. Wolwedans solar panels power nearly the entirety of the camp.

It makes us wonder: if an environmentally sustainable, commercially viable luxury lodge can be created in the middle of the desert, what could the rest of the world achieve?

Our group's tour operators and agents are impressed by what they see at Wolwedans. The skepticism and suspicions that sustainability is usually employed as a marketing term rather than actual practice are quieted. This operation isn't mere facade, but rather a top to bottom, no stone unturned sustainable enterprise. We all agree that it certainly informs the previous night's discussion on whether or not sustainability was something travellers would be willing to spend money on.

"It seems like they have thought of everything and they are continually evolving and striving for even more efficient methods. The owner has a downright passion to operate with the community and environment in mind and there are few companies out there “doing it right.”

"I was beyond impressed with Wolwedans and its sustainability efforts," said Nina Kovac, a travel consultant with Civilized Adventures in Calgary.

"The other resorts are hopefully going to get sick of hearing about Wolwedans because people will come from here and go on and talk about: 'Well at Wolwedans they do...'" said Stephen Brücker, managing director, Wolwedans.

Brücker hopes that once competing lodges tire of hearing about the impressive efforts being made at his lodge, they will begin to follow suit with sustainable and economically viable camps of their own.

Real Africa

THE FAM REPORT: NAMIBIA

Authenticity and just what it means to offer an "authentic " experience are brought up around the table. Can a destination even really offer an authentic experience anymore? Is authenticity not lost as soon as tourists start showing up to experience it? If not, then how many people represent that breaking point of authenticity? Will Namibia lose what makes it special if too many people find out about it?

We can offer no concrete answers to the questions during dinner. The best questions rarely have black and white answers.

But here is what we experience.

A little car trouble in the bush, but it was no big deal
A little car trouble in the bush, but it was no big deal

Having woken up at Grootberg Lodge before dawn, we eat breakfast perched on a rim of the sweeping Grootberg Plateau, looking down into the Klip River Valley.

We load ourselves into a Land Rover (later replaced with a Land Cruiser when we have some car troubles) and make our way out into the bush to track black rhino.

By the time we leave the vehicle behind and trek out into the low hills of the valley, the temperature has gone from nice and cool to quite hot.

Pre-game instructions are strict and precise. Our guides have told us to walk single file, remain absolutely silent, watch the ground in front of us at all times because the terrain is extremely rocky, and absolutely no running under any circumstances. We do as we are told and the expert rhino trackers do their thing.

I have no idea how long we've been hiking for when we stop for the first time. Everyone remains silent. There is a sense that we are near the rhino. Every few moments the trackers have us stop to wait, be completely silent and test the wind. The trackers are quietly deciding on our plan of action to near the rhino. We have to approach from the right direction. Rhinos are strong of smell and hearing, but have atrocious vision. The wind will give us away before anything else.

Hans Otto, dominant male black rhino in the valley
Hans Otto, dominant male black rhino in the valley

Within a few minutes we are near him: Hans Otto. He is the dominant male in the valley.

At first he is just a brown-grey shape in the trees, but soon enough he is revealed to us. We snap a flurry of photos.

I try to take a moment to take in the experience. It's not every day that I am tracking rhino through the wild. Which is exactly where we are. There are no fences or game reserve barriers keeping these rhinos in the valley. Hans Otto has come here because this is where he wants to be. This is his territory. At least for now.

The trackers inform us that there is a younger male rhino who has recently entered the valley and he may be looking to make it his own. But for the moment it still belongs to Hans Otto. That becomes obvious when the wind shifts and ol' Hans catches smell of us. He trudges off. We reposition ourselves, lingering to watch a little longer. When the wind begins to shift again the trackers suggest we move on. Time to give Hans Otto his space.

Our hike back to the vehicles brings us upon mountain zebra and a herd of springbok. We find massive kudu horns and, once back in the vehicle, we cross by the carcass of a giraffe previously taken down by lions.

All of the animals are in the valley because it is their chosen home. Namibia is a country filled with farmland and desert and the vast majority of the animals roaming across its vast spaces do so uninterrupted by fencing or parks. Though the question of what constitutes an authentic experience is paradoxical, I can tell you that tracking down Hans Otto and sharing a moment with him in his space felt pretty real, whatever it is that that means.

Selling the destination

!!!THE FAM REPORT: NAMIBIA

Which brings us back to the questions from our round the table dinner discussion: How should tour operators and travel agents sell Namibia?

"Namibia's biggest marketing challenge is also one of its greatest assets: no one knows anything about it! It is easy to publish authoritative guides, brochures and websites about tourism in Namibia as there is currently very little information out there relative to other destinations - the problem is that people are not yet looking for it," explains Vicki Brown who is currently working on a project to help market the destination for the Namibia Tourism Board.

!!!THE FAM REPORT: NAMIBIA

"The easiest option until now has been to jump on the back of other "classic" African destinations," Brown said.

"But, to do that is to miss the point of Namibia. Its wildlife alone cannot compete with South Africa or Kenya, for example,  but instead comes as part of a unique package which includes vast landscapes, adventure sports, photography safaris, fascinating local culture and superior accommodation. Add to that the ease of self-drives, lack of malaria, low crime rate, great infrastructure, widespread use of English and great food and drink, and it is a fantastic African destination - without compromising on safety or comfort."

It all rings true. Once back home from my time in Namibia, people ask me: what was the best part? I'd be hard pressed to pick one particular moment, simply out of fairness to how impresssed I am by everything I experienced. Seeing wild African animals was amazing, but also completely different from the sunsets, the sunrises, the encounter with Himba tribes people, the views from the planes or our hikes into the desert.

We never settled on any real decisions around the dinner table in the desert. A few questions were answered the rest of the way, while even more were raised. In my honest opinion, I believe that everyone should experience Namibia, I just hope they aren't all there when I go back.

For more information on Namibia, visit namibiatourism.com.na

For more information on South African Airways and its flights to Namibia, visit flysaa.com.

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