By Wilfried Rupieper
The tourism industry globally constitutes a whopping 9% of world GDP and growing, which is mind-boggling.
The global traveller is constantly looking for special destinations to explore so as to top the last holiday with an even more exciting one, and then back home to show the evidence and rave about it. It also means the international traveller is becoming more discerning, and possibly more demanding in respect of offerings.
Countries that are aware of the benefits of tourism to the economy of their country strive to position themselves favourably and competitively as a country destination amongst all the existing marketing noise.
Namibia, relative to its economic size, has tremendous potential to grow tourism into a major driver of socio-economic development! The country embodies a very unique destination. This could be hugely developmentally beneficial, given our relatively small size of population. Our fragile ecology requires a very mindful yet concerted approach to facilitate the benefits of tourism to both guests and the Namibian socio-economy.
To achieve this aim, we have considerable challenges to address. Despite some of the commendable efforts of various centralised agencies (such as Tasa, HAN, Fenata, and also the Ministry of Environment and Tourism), the tourism efforts in Namibia remain at best relatively fragmented. At this stage, Namibia does not effectively align and integrate its efforts to create a clear and coherently attractive vision of tourism for Namibia to position it effectively within the country, regionally and internationally.
In Namibia, most private sector players within tourism/hospitality maintain at best a narrowly competitive and therefore limiting marketing impact. While some exceptions are praiseworthy in this respect, we are on the whole falling far short of what it could be!
Therefore, the industry and all its particular stakeholders should more proactively work together to present Namibia more coherently and effectively. The more we combine our marketing clout, the better. This requires the funding of marketing drives across different media and channels, targeting existing and potential markets.
Furthermore, information, and in particular meaningful and accurate information about tourism for Namibia is hard to come by in that the various stakeholders in this space are not spontaneously inclined to give, gather and share data to then get information in return, which they can use for better planning, development and capacity-building decisions.
An example: the capacity of Namibia in the mid-to high-end accommodation sector on high-volume routes (Etosha, Swakopmund, Sossusvlei, Zambezi, Kunene, etc) is rapidly becoming limited, although this conclusion is not well-supported by statistics since they are not reliably and representatively available (these are thus only empirically derived). Since most lodges do not report back on occupancy rates throughout the year, and the numbers reported may in fact not be based on a commonly shared and consistently applied definition of occupancy, we have little quality information to work with in order to project and plan. Therefore, we are destined to respond reactively to an evolving demand as it presents itself; which means we as a country are losing business! The long-term effects may well be that Namibia quickly becomes known as limited, and thus unreliable for booking holidays!
So, only at service provider level, like a lodge, the increasing demand is interpreted somewhat narrowly, often with a concern that the demand will not be sustained since the bigger context in which demand is framed is not clear. The subsequent wait and see approach means that the lodge will only add the capacity after maybe three years of sustained demand excessive to actual capacity. This means that we have to turn away business in the meantime, which may in fact be a significant proportion. However, we could cater for that business if we had better tourism market intelligence.
One of the side-effects of this is that the normal competitive processes are watered down in that guests are accommodated in accommodation that does not meet the standard, enabling mediocre service providers to remain in business, with serious country reputational risks, particularly since the international traveller through increasing travel exposure is becoming more demanding.
The Namibia Statistics Agency has virtually no information on this growth-promising sector, which is to my mind at best unfortunate.
On top of this, the majority of the population is still somewhat oblivious to the potential favourable impact of tourism on the country’s socio-economy, and thus on their lives. It is, therefore, difficult to create broad-based excitement and interest about the tourism industry amongst your average job seeker. For example, the tour guide profession, which is a key component of effective guest services management in Namibia, is still largely seen as an inferior career option. Yet, the tour guide is a highly interesting, demanding and multifaceted role. In fact, it is an advantageous foundation towards a management career in the tourism sector in general.
The alignment of teaching/learning institutions with core competencies in tourism is also at best tentative. The lack of professional substance within the industry means that the competencies related to service provision across the spectrum of tourism services remains rather shallow. In essence, entrants into the tourism industry learn from others, who have learned from others. But with no significant theoretical and standards background, there are just too few professionals in the industry right now to build professionalism consistently. This also results in significant staff turnover in the industry, impacting service continuity. Subsequently, consistent step-wise improvement, even when reasonable service levels have been achieved temporarily, is at best an illusion.
Tourism industry competencies are highly portable to other sectors as well. Service to guests or clients, planning, logistics, driving, planning, problem-solving, client care and so forth are all competencies required across most industries, allowing for career steps which are not limited to the tourism industry.
It is unfortunate, though, that entry to tour guiding for younger job seekers who may well be suitable, face a barrier in that a public driving permit (PDP) can only be obtained by someone at least 25 years of age. This means that anyone interested even after a tourism or related tertiary education cannot easily start a career in tour guiding, unless they breach the time between when they complete the degree (typically around age 21) and when they can obtain the PDP 4 years later.
Thus, the demand side of tour guiding is largely fed by semi-retirees as a second or third career path in their work life, or by farmers who are able to organise their farming business to allow at least to guide a few tours per year.
A tremendous opportunity does exist with the ever-growing German-speaking guests coming to Namibia each year. German language skills amongst locals of non-German heritage constitutes a tremendous leverage in effective tour guiding of such guests. However, this does not seem to be furthered in a country where unemployment is rife, where large parts of the population still do not have access to mainstream economic activities, and the education system remains ill-aligned to prepare the young job seeker for effective value-add in the economy.
My appeal is towards a greater alignment of interests, a responsiveness to calls by coordinating and representative agencies for participation, as well as bundling energies and initiatives to drive tourism understanding and subsequent interest with government and other agencies that can provide leverage.
This requires a more willing and dynamic engagement of the players in the industry to create a vision and also specific tourism targets that are mutually understood and constitute a motivational factor in guiding and sustaining tourism efforts in Namibia.
Within the government’s NDP/Vision 2030, tourism is an important focal area. However, follow-through to its real potential is problematic. The cooperation of business and government together with agencies within the tourism space is vital to fully leverage the potential socio-economic impact.
* Wilfried Rupieper is a business consultant, writing in his personal capacity.