There is momentum in tourism but results remain elusive
Several important conferences hosted by local and regional agencies have given the local tourism industry some much-needed momentum. We will probably not see any direct benefits before the end of this year, but I do believe there are many new opportunities for us to revitalise this key sector.
Going by the latest Quarterly Economic Update, released last week by the Ministry of Finance, the hospitality side of tourism is not doing well. The sector Hotels & Restaurant declined by 17% during the second quarter and by a whopping 31.2% compared to a year ago. This does not bode well for an economic sector that has been hit very hard by the financial crisis of five years ago.
It is notoriously difficult to measure tourism revenues accurately. When a tourist enters Namibia, he or she becomes an ordinary consumer and does not reflect a traceable statistical trail like other revenue items. Other than car rental and lodgings, tourism revenues are hard to track and difficult to compile. But the hospitality figures from the finance ministry at least offer a glimpse of accommodation, and tourists have to sleep somewhere. So, it is reasonable to say that if Hotels & Restaurants declined by one third in one year, then a similar decline can be surmised in all other areas of tourist spending.
It is because of this visible decrease that I am so enamoured by the large conferences we have hosted. The Adventure Travel World Summit drew roughly 650 representatives from across the globe, representing a form of tourism which we have hardly exploited so far. And the Water Reuse conference in Windhoek, although not strictly a tourism event, drew another 400 delegates all leaving our shores as ambassadors to spread the gospel of Tourism Namibia in their respective countries.
In the region, both Durban and Cape Town hosted major tourism conferences which again, usually do not bring us immediate benefits but create platforms where Namibian promoters can participate to increase the exposure of our own products.
The authoritative International Air Transport Association (IATA) started the string of travel-focused conference in South Africa with their Annual General Meeting in Cape Town at the beginning of June. IATA describes southern Africa as a region with enormous promise yet with significant challenges. Africa is also among the fastest growing regions but still remain so insignificant as a contributor to domestic air travel that IATA does not bother to compile or release any specific African statistics. Africa is only mentioned briefly as a component of international travel.
The IATA AGM may have been a mere blimp on the screen for most local operators, but their decision to host their AGM for the first time on African soil, says something about their expectations for our continent. This is in general quite positive but in the meantime local tourism operators and accommodation establishments must survive and be profitable to grow. And this can only happen if the number of tourists to Namibia increase and dramatically so.
Tourism is identified in the fourth National Development Plan as a priority sector. This is a reflection of the sector’s importance from a development perspective, and it indicates the preferential treatment it receives from a policy perspective. But the fruits of all our efforts over many years, are still meagre.
I realise it is easier said than done, and it is perhaps stating the obvious to say we have to exploit the new opportunities, but I still believe tourism is one of the key economic sectors of the future. There is a glimmer of hope in the short term. Again quoting IATA figures, their latest monthly update (September) indicates global growth of more than 5% year on year. “Growth in air travel has been strong over recent months, supported by improvements in the demand environment” they said.
This is perhaps the most important point for us to consider. I argue that we must exploit the new opportunities in tourism but this will be futile if demand is lacking. From the official statistics, I see that demand has stabilised and is gradually improving. Since a very large part of our foreigners come by air, I assume a general improvement in international travel, will also eventually show up in our visitors statistics.
After aggressively promoting tourism for so many years, I have sympathy with despondent operators who point out all the positive aspects of Namibia, and then the boom still fails to materialise. I can only be philosophical reminding them that 23 and a bit years ago, tourism as an economic sector was as good as non-existent.