What is the difference between profit and struggle?
When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a communist. – Helder Camara, archbishop (1909-1999)
Tourism is widely viewed as an economic generator and job creator. In Namibia’s case, the expectations are no different although it took many years before the sector showed solid results, and then the aftermath of the international financial crisis struck us. The effect in 2009 was limited but by end of 2010, tourism revenues had collapsed by about 60%. Last year, visitor numbers stabilised and this year, the expectation is for a slight 5% improvement, but revenues remain depressed.
Taking a group of Americans around a few places closer to Windhoek earlier this week, I noticed the extreme anomalies that are currently manifest in the tourism sector.
A short one-day visit to Erindi led to an amazing surprise. I last went to Erindi when it was still just a ranch – a very large hunting camp.
This week’s experience immediately set my analytic wheels in motion. Speaking to the staff at Erindi, I came to the conclusion, this upmarket venue has survived the financial crunch satisfactorily and has elevated itself to an exclusive destination. Earlier this year, in April, I tried to book a spot for visitors and was surprised to be told, they are fully booked, and would be so for the rest of the month. This status was confirmed by my visit in person this week.
Erindi may have suffered, same as all the other establishments, but it has successfully navigated the turbulent period. Their target client, although small in number, are typically well-heeled with an appropriate purse to complete the profile. That segment of the market, especially from Europe, has rebound. But that, unfortunately, is only a small fraction of the overall market, and it consists of very discerning customers. They are prepared to pay for their stay if it conforms to their standards.
And one has to be realistic. Erindi as it looks and operates today, is a far cry from the old Erindi. The investment there must be running close to N$100 million, if it has not exceeded it already. The tourism operators in that league can be counted on one hand. But it works, and it works well.
As an aside, we can now tell owner Gert Joubert, it is not necessary to turn the entire country into a big game park. A couple thousand hectares are more than sufficient. What is required, is the substantial investment.
Then, on our way back, as always, I was asked to stop at the Kavango craft market at Okahandja. I chose the one that had not burnt down. What a disgrace. This shanty town offers the extreme opposite of the tourism spectrum and it illustrates why so many aspirations based on tourism, have been disappointed.
When any group of tourists arrive, they are immediately accosted by a band of well-meaning but clueless craft vendors. While the wood carvings and some Owambo artefacts are genuine, the majority of curios are foreign. I pointed this out to my group, in the process drawing flack from the vendors, who insisted blatantly and loudly, the Ghana masks are Namibian and the jade stone figurines are also Namibian.
My group observed and commented how dilapidated the place looks and how full of rubbish the entire compound is. One also could not help notice the army of small children running around behind the craft stalls among what appears to be temporary lodgings turned permanent.
I asked a vendor why they do not pick up the rubbish and clean the place pointing out to him that the rubbish is noted by the tourists. His response was that it is the municipality’s job to keep the place clean and not his, adding that they are waiting for a new craft centre to be built across the road, then everything would be hunky dory.
Then it struck me, it is not a matter of capacity as we are fond of calling it euphemistically, it is a matter of mentality. The craft vendor is not interested in promoting tourism, or sharing in the benefits generated by visitors, he is only interested in erking out a living for that day. If he has to lie (like where the crafts are made) then so be it. In his world view, tourists are there to be exploited and if he can con them with a silly story, it is to his benefit.
We can hide behind excuses and cover our shortcomings with euphemisms like lack of capacity, or inability to access investment, or whatever we like, but if we do not change the mentality of those trying to make a living from tourists, then only the Erindis will succeed and the wood carvers will not.