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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 / March 26, 2008

Bavarian Africa: Windhoek, Namibia, reflects its German colonial heritage.


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Windhoek, Namibia

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.

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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.

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."