Namibia: Interview with Willem Konjore

Willem Konjore

Minister of Environment and Tourism (Government of Namibia)

Willem Konjore

Namibia satisfies international and domestic tourism with its unique mix of wildlife, natural wonders and diverse cultures. Could you give us your thoughts on the evolution of the Ministry activities from its creation to today?

The Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) was established in 1990 with Independence. Its primary role was to conserve the environment and ensure sustainable utilization of natural resources and promote Namibian tourism. The Ministry is faced with a mammoth task to redress injustices of the past with regard to restitution of rights over wildlife that was taken away through Apartheid discriminatory laws. While the use of natural resources such as wildlife was legalized on freehold land, communities on communal land were denied the same rights. Previously disadvantaged communities, particularly in the rural areas did not benefit from tourism although the tourist attractions and accommodation establishments were in their local areas. The Ministry was not only tasked to redress imbalances of the past but also to harness the environment and tourism to make meaningful contribution towards the national development agenda.

This Ministry has come a long way since its inception and has reached many milestones along the way. The most notable developments are the following:
The restructuring of the Ministry and the subsequent devolution of some key tourism functions to newly created institutions, namely:

  • The Namibian Wildlife Resorts, a parastatal, was established in 1996 through an Act of Parliament to run state-owned lodges and campsites on commercial principles.
  • The Namibian Tourism Board, also created by an Act of Parliament, became operational 2001 and is responsible for marketing and promoting Namibia locally and abroad, and currently runs promotion offices in Germany, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

The role of the Ministry is multi-dimensional in nature. Its role includes transfrontier cooperation and protected area management; community-based natural resources management; tourism development; environmental protection; natural resource monitoring and management and utilization and trade of/in wildlife resources. Interestingly, the regulation of gambling and lotteries also resort under this Ministry.
In terms of expanding tourism to rural communities, we adopted a Conservancy Policy of 1996, and the subsequent passing of the Nature Conservation Amendment Act of the same year facilitated the evolution of the Community-based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM) Programme that has won international admiration and recognition is equally popular domestically. The programme has resulted in the development of many conservancies capable of managing their natural resources sustainably.
The programme extends local responsibility and proprietorship over wildlife and other resources to communities to enhance their social, financial and economic well being. In 2004 CBNRM related activities generated N$ 15 million. Currently there are 44 conservancies throughout Namibia with considerable further potential for growth in income from tourism.

Could you tell about some of the tourism sector key figures from the last 3 years?

The definition of a tourist remains guided by the World Tourism Organization (WTO) that stipulates that a tourist is: a person visiting a place other than his /her usual place of residence for at least one night but not exceeding a period of twelve months.
Tourists are classified according to the following purposes of visit:

  • those visiting friends and relatives (VFR)
  • those on holiday or leisure and
  • those who are on business trips

In general there has been rapid growth in Namibia‘s tourism sector during the past 5 years. In terms of tourism’s contribution to the national economy (GDP) it is estimated that tourism contributes about N$ 2.8 billion a year to the national coffers, providing more than 70 000 direct and indirect jobs in the industry. Thus for every additional 12 tourist arrivals one new job is created. As compared to the current N$ 2.8 billion, tourism only contributed N$ 160 million to the national economy in 1993. The number of tourists to Namibia has increased from 255,000 in 1993 to more than 695,000 in 2003. Although the number of tourists arrivals to Namibia for 2004 are only based on air arrivals (selected airports) and doesn’t include land arrivals, tourism is back on track following its recession in the aftermath of September 11 and the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East. In addition, it is believed that Germany, which is Namibia’s key source market in Europe, has been particularly affected by stagnated economic growth rate while a strong Rand/N$ against the Euro and US dollar had made package tours to Namibia even more expensive, especially the accommodation sector that typically makes up about 60 percent of a travel package. However, high prices coupled with a stronger local currency may prove to be an obstacle for further quick growth because of relatively expensive air tickets.

Apart from Germany, the other big markets for Namibian tourism are South Africa, United Kingdom while the American market is growing steadily, attracting especially trophy hunters. Judging from the age of visitors, the country is an attractive destination for the elderly, but may not be seen as a family destination. The high season for Namibian tourism is during the cooler months: May to October while December is the peak month for Namibia’s coastal resorts, mainly due to domestic holiday makers. The main reason for this is that the majority of tourist arrivals to Namibia still originate from central Europe, more specifically the German-speaking countries where the main travel season is in their summer vacation between July and August during which the travelers have longer leave opportunities needed for a long-haul holiday such as Namibia.
Occupancy rates figures for 2003/2004 were a little disappointing at 52.7 percent on average.

Natural attractions were the most popular type of tourist activity, particularly at the coast and in the South while Windhoek mainly offered city attractions. Of further interest are special – interest trips and tours to natural beauty spots and national parks. Other preferred attractions include adventure sports, entertainment facilities, restaurants and cultural products.
Community – based tourism destination has witnessed an increase in the number of visitors, growing in five years from 30,000 to over 90,000 in 2004. In terms of monetary terms, more than N$27 million has already been generated in 31 conservancies (with 13 more gazetted but still in their formative stages). This N$27 million had been derived from campsites, trophy hunting, community lodge partnerships and crafts. Most of this income has been used for community projects such as the drilling of water boreholes, facilities for children and pensioners etc.

The new market being developed for Namibia in the United Kingdom is strongly supported by the launch, in July 2005, of the new access link between the two countries through Air Namibia flight between Windhoek and London. Tour operators, travel agents and the Namibia Tourism Board (NTB) in particular have all certainly contributed to the development and promotion of travel to Namibia especially after its rain season, i.e. March/April, a period when Namibia is green and pleasant, and when stormy weather still hits the North–Atlantic region. German–speaking Europe (Germany, Switzerland and Austria), was the biggest group, totaled some 34.5 percent of all travellers making use of the tourism accommodation facilities in 2004 during the peak period.

Although the negative trend for the Namibian tourism accommodation industry occupancy figures have gone down a bit since 2002, the private sector, especially the tour agents who during the peak tourism season often struggle to have bookings confirmed for sites at, or close to, the bigger attractions in Namibia, including the Etosha and Sossusvlei area. Most operators experienced a much improved peak tourism season during the last four months of year 2005.

Your Government has set a goal that you call “Vision 2030” which aim is to see the country prospering in many ways (economically, poverty eradicating, attract international investments). How would your ministry contribute to this?

The major benefit of tourism is the opportunity to deliver economic growth, job creation and poverty reduction. Apart from tourism contributing towards other government development objectives outlined in the 2nd National Development Plan (NDP II) it can also contribute towards the reduction of inequalities in income distribution and of regional development inequities by attracting visitors to areas of the country where few, if any, other forms of economic opportunity exist for local people.

The Ministry of Environment and Tourism will continue promoting the broadening of ownership in the industry, for example, new investment or funding and tourism infrastructure will be promoted in areas of low economic activity like the conservancies, communal zones and small towns.

To date seven joint venture agreements have taken place between communities and the private sector, both in accommodation enterprises and in the use of community controlled tourism attractions. This is an on-going process. Efforts to establish mechanisms and incentives to attract historically disadvantaged Namibians to invest in formal tourism operations and ventures are in the initial stage.

Park management plans to as the basis for tourism planning and development for the Namib-Naukluft Park and Etosha National Park have been prepared and are awaiting approval and implementation. A total of 44 conservancies benefiting about nearly 100,000 people have been established in most of the regions in Namibia, with several more in their early stages of development.

In the light of the above, the Namibian Government views tourism as an important tool for economic growth, poverty reduction, employment creation and empowerment of the previously disadvantaged communities, particularly in the rural areas. The tourism sector is also seen as a tool to make the transition from a natural resource exporter to a service economy.

We believe it is important to Namibia to promote her image abroad in order to attract diverse overseas source markets. Tourism awareness publicity campaigns have been launched to promote the benefits of tourism in Namibia. What is the role you are playing?

I believe that Namibia image as a tourism destination is favourable. This is demonstrated by good infrastructure and telecommunication facilities as well as political stability. In addition, tourists coming to Namibia are increasingly from diverse nationalities.

Marketing can be correlated with growth in the tourism industry and therefore the economic benefit from tourism. My Ministry is there committed to invest in marketing tourism abroad though the Namibian Tourism Board, a Statutory Body established by this Ministry in 2001. The prime objective of the Board, a joint venture between the Government and the private sector, is to market the tourism industry domestically and internationally. Trough the NTB, the government is playing a vital role in marketing the country generically and thereby providing smaller entrepreneurs access to foreign markets.

It is becoming crucial to experiment with the new products for existing markets. Cultural tourism is one of the least developed facets in Namibia’s products. Is there a new strategy to diversify the products?

Cultural tourism is by and large underdeveloped and/or underutilized despite its potential. This could primarily be attributed to the fact that, historically, Namibia has been mainly marketed as wilderness and landscape experience destination. This situation is, however, changing as more and more visitors are demanding encounters with the Namibian cultures. Once, it is developed, it will add value to existing products while offering opportunities for product diversification, regional spread of tourist visitations and economic benefits.

Namibia has 11 different ethnic cultures; therefore a visitor can spend the rest of his/her life trying to find a definitive Namibian culture. However, the most obvious things that people look for when referring to culture are religious, spiritual practices, art and craft, music ritual ceremonies, architecture and the clothes people wear and food they eat. But culture can also be about what people do every day, such as what people think, how they feel, what they laugh about, what makes them angry etc. When in Namibia, a visitor may buy a local newspaper, stop at a trading store on a dusty road, catch a taxi around town, drive into the country and stay with a rural farmer, because these are some of the places that you can experience real Namibian culture.

Apart from the above experiences, the Ministries of Environment and Tourism, has a Community-Based Tourism Section with in the Directorate of Tourism that is responsible for the development and support of various projects and activities that are promoting community based tourism including projects that has a cultural emphasis:

  • the creation of conservancies that encourages the preservation of natural resources and social values within various communities,
  • development of community lodges,
  • encouraging the creation of arts and craft centres within communities
  • supports non governmental organizations that are responsible for the development of tourism and
  • encourages the preservation of natural resources within the in rural communities.

Your personal experiences are also of interest to us. Could you tell us about your career up to your promotion to Minister of Environment and Tourism as well as your accomplishment during your time as Minister?

I grew up on the other side of the main road seeing and hating apartheid and with the sure knowledge that what was meant for white compatriots was not necessarily meant for me. For the whole of my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the Namibian people. Fighting side by side and inch by inch with Comrades-In-Arms against the racist and apartheid regime until the final victory was achieved on 21st March 1990.

In 1989 I was nominated by the SWAPO Party as one of its delegates to the Constituent Assembly, where we draft and graft the Namibian Constitution acceptable to the majority of our people. After the translation of the Constituent Assembly in to the new National Assembly on the 21st March 1990, I became the Chief Whip of SWAPO Party in the National Assembly, responsible for party discipline and coordinating the Parliamentary work of the Party. Five years down the road in 2000 I was elected as the second Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly the position I hold until my appointment as Minister of Environment and Tourism on the 21st March 2005.

The opening of the Grootberg Lodge in 2005 stands out as one of the immerse achievements. This is the first wholly owned community lodge which was constructed under the new approach to the Community-based Tourism Enterprise development known as the “Community Lodges’ concept.

Other highlights of the recent past are the launching of the Tourism Satellite Account that will measure the impact of tourism activities in the whole economy, and the development of policies on human-wildlife conflict management and tourism and wildlife concessions on State land. Lastly, we have recently finalized the Environmental Management and Assessment Bill which I shortly hope to be able to table in Parliament.

We’re here in the Republic of Namibia to promote investment opportunities of the country. What would your final message to our readers concerning these opportunities?

The role of the Government is that of creating a favorable investment climate through the establishment of a legal and policy framework that enable the private sector to operate profitably. Government can also encourage the development of domestic tourism ownership through joint ventures and partnerships between foreign investors and local partners.

It can be argued from a socio economic perceptive that until local participation has occurred, not much tourism development has taken place at all, even if the country is overflowing with tourists. One of the responsibilities of the Namibian Tourism Board is to identify investment opportunities in the sector and to bring investors through marketing of Namibia as a unique tourism destination. We are therefore encouraging joint ventures and other partnerships between local people, local companies and foreign investors.