Namibia strikes 'new gold' – tourists

Impressive growth of visitors from nontraditional places, including China, now put tourism ahead of gold mining.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Bavarian Africa: Windhoek, Namibia, reflects its German colonial heritage.
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    Game Watching: Visitors wait for animals to arrive at a watering hole in Etosha National Park, one of Namibia's main attractions. Tourism in southern Africa is up significantly.
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When Rolf Hansen and his family opened Guest House Terra Africa on a hillside overlooking the center of Windhoek, Namibia's capital city, they expected they'd be courting the same travelers who have vacationed here for decades: Germans.

Namibia, after all, was once German South West Africa, and the country today still reflects its long-ago colonizers: Many of its buildings look distinctly Bavarian, a good percentage of the population still speaks German, and almost every menu seems to feature sausage and beer.

For all these reasons, not to mention family ties and the appeal of the country's breathtaking desert landscape, Germans have long made up the largest percentage of Namibian tourists.

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But when the Hansens finished renovating their newly bought guesthouse in 2006 (wireless Internet, modernized interior, top-quality web­site), a different clientele started booking. Instead of Germans, Mr. Hansen says, he saw Asians and Russians, South Africans and Americans.

"It used to be all Germans," he says. "But now Namibia is looking elsewhere, too."

The pattern at Terra Africa is

indicative of a wider tourism trend sweeping southern Africa, those in the hospitality industry say. As more people jump into the region's growing tourism sector, countries are starting to shift their attention away from the region's old colonial masters and toward newer markets. Tourism, they say, is not only supporting widespread growth – it is supporting new global relationships, as well.

According to the UN's World Tourism Organization, almost 26 million international tourists visited sub-Saharan Africa in 2006. This was a 10 percent increase over 2005, which is almost twice the average global tourism growth rate, according to the organization.

Namibia saw its highest-ever tourism numbers in 2007, with around 600,000 visitors. Today, 17.9 percent of Namibia's jobs are connected to tourism, according to Jacqueline Asheeke, CEO of the Federation of Namibia Tourism Associations. In neighboring South Africa, tourism has surpassed gold mining as the country's No. 1 foreign currency earner, says Michael Tatalias, the CEO of Southern African Tourism Services, an association of private tourism businesses.

"Tourism is the new gold," he says.

Today, some 40 percent of global travel takes place in developing countries, according to the Pro-Poor Tourism Partnership, an alliance of development agencies and tourism groups. In southern Africa, the majority of visitors still come from old colonial countries – Britons visit South Africa in large numbers, for instance, while Portuguese visit Mozambique. But more and more tourists are coming from "new" tourism markets such as China and India.

"The total numbers out of Europe are the same or growing slowly, but you're seeing an increase in the other markets, so the percentages are shifting," Mr. Tatalias says. "As an industry, we're very subject to all the international trends."

These fads can be anything from a new interest in "responsible" travel – where lodges or tour groups vie to show their ecological sensitivity and responsibility to local residents – to "activist tourism," where travelers help out on volunteer-type projects. But the trend of shifting regional influence is one of the most entrenched, experts say, and is one that has governments and tourism associations scrambling.

"Historically, South Africa looked to Europe for visitor numbers," says Ntsiki Mpulo, communications manager for South Africa Tourism, the government-supported marketing company for South Africa. But, she continues, "South Africa Tourism has opened up Africa, the Americas, and Asia, as these are all the markets of the future."

Here in Namibia, tourism officials have taken a similar tack.

"We have been focusing on Europe for the past 15 years, with an emphasis on Germans," says Gitta Paetzold, CEO of the Hospitality Association of Namibia. "Slowly but surely we've been extending our market reach."

Last year, for instance, the government of Namibia signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government, which put Namibia on the list of acceptable destinations for Chinese citizens. Representatives of the Namibian Tourism Board – the quasi-governmental body responsible for marketing the country – also visited China to start laying groundwork for a full-scale marketing campaign.

"China is a strategic market for Namibia, due to the business and political ties that exist between the two countries," the tourism board said in a press release.

China's business influence in Africa has been growing exponentially – the Council on Foreign Relations says Chinese trade in the continent is now more than $50 billion a year.

"There's a big correlation between the success of business travel and later leisure travel that comes out of it," Tatalias says. "People come here driven by profits. But then they come out, and they do their meetings, and they do their conferences, and they think, 'Hey, this isn't a bad place at all.' "

Still, Tatalias and others in the tourism industry say there are still barriers to Chinese tourism in southern Africa. Few guides speak Mandarin, and the choices for Chinese food are slim. Chinese travelers often want to visit two or three countries on one trip, but have only a week or two for vacation, tourism experts say. That puts countries such as Namibia, with its vast distances between tourist spots, at a disadvantage.

But African governments are addressing these gaps, offering Mandarin language classes for tour guides and increasing their marketing within China. Chinese government statistics seem to indicate that something is working: Almost 200,000 Chinese tourists visited Africa in 2006, about three times as many as two years prior.

China is not the only new target. Southern African countries are increasingly marketing themselves to India – another "market of the future" with high-spending travelers, according to Ms. Mpulo. Tourists from other African countries also make up a growing percentage of visitors in southern Africa.

In Namibia, tourism experts say the trick is to show potential visitors that their country is distinct from neighboring South Africa, which governed Namibia until 1990. They promote Namibia's red sand deserts and 975-mile coastline, the game viewing and deep-sea fishing, the first-world infrastructure and – a not-so-subtle dig at South Africa – the country's low crime rate.

"We've only been independent for 17 years," says Ms. Paetzold, of the Hospitality Association. "And we've only done tourism marketing for seven or eight…. But we have so many things that make us special."

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