Most of Namibia’s economic sectors, including agriculture, fishing and mining, entered 2017 with limited optimism.
The reasons for this include the persistent drought, as well as the low commodity prices and demand for mined goods on the international market.
The Namibian tourism sector, however, is shining, and is not only able to look back on a bumper year in 2016, but is also looking forward to an even better 2017.
Based on the preliminary results of the room and bed occupancy rates for last year, which the Hospitality Association of Namibia (HAN) processes on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis, the overall room occupancy for Namibia during 2016 was just short of 60 percent.
This is the highest in a decade, and likely the highest since HAN started recording statistics in 2000.
October 2016 not only witnessed the advent of additional airlines, such as Qatar Airways and KLM, which touched down on Namibian soil for the first time, it also recorded a national average room occupancy of 76 percent - a clear sign that the decade-old call by the tourism sector for the opening of Namibian skies to increase access capacity to the country, has borne fruit.
Speaking to tour operators, travel agents and product wholesalers, as well as destination marketing experts, it does seem as though the interest in and demand for travel to Namibia is on the rise.
Already, Namibia appears fully booked for the high season - between July and November - with many operators challenged to convince travellers to visit Namibia outside the peak season, in the first half of the year.
While this increased demand on Namibia for travel and accommodation might help us ‘spread’ the seasonality that the tourism industry has been subjected to in the past, all tourism stakeholders are also challenged to ensure that they meet the increased demand, both in quantity and quality.
Namibia does have capacity issues; there have already been calls from operators and investors to build new lodges, hotels and other tourism service enterprises. This calls for a thorough needs assessment.
While an annual occupancy rate of 60 percent across-the-board is rated as very good among tourism experts, mathematicians will see further scope to occupy the remaining 40 percent, before increasing capacity.
The other issue Namibia still grapples with is human resource capacity, in terms of providing service excellence.
Already there are fears that while striving to improve the skills development of young Namibians employed in tourism, the increased demand on service providers may shift the focus from quality to quantity, to the detriment of training and upskilling of our people.
Most training facilities in tourism - and Namibia boasts a number of these already- including the Namibian Institute for Culinary Education (NICE), the Desert Academy, the NUST Hotel School, the Silver Spoon Hospitality Academy, the Kambaku Training Academy and others, which provide hands-on training for people in hospitality, complain about the lack of support and application from the industry for their training services.
Apprentice programs, internships and other work and training combination programs are still lacking in Namibia, and now would be the perfect time to foster close relations with such training institutions.
We need to help ensure that our tourism staff are equipped with all the necessary skills, experience and exposure, to meet and exceed the demands of international travellers stepping onto Namibian shores.
Another very important step in ensuring that Namibia, as a destination, remains on the crest of the wave to success, is intense communication, understanding and cooperation with all stakeholders involved in the legislative processes, including immigration and visa control, as well as transport infrastructure, both on land and in the air.
A shining example of success in cooperation is the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape province in South Africa, which late last year saw record numbers of tourists flock in, resulting in an arrivals increase, compared to previous years, of between 20 to 30 percent.
This result is based on excellent teamwork between the provincial government, tourism promotion agencies and the private sector.
Some of these efforts included the Cape Town Air Access programme, launched in 2015, that has to date secured an additional 250,000 direct airline seats into the province.
Namibia has achieved a similar deal with added airline flights to Windhoek, so hopefully an equal result can be achieved in the coming year.
According to stakeholders in the Western Cape, increased collaboration between the Government at national, provincial and local levels, as well as improved collaboration between the public and private sectors, has further contributed to the growth.
In entering the year of its 30th anniversary, HAN has three prominent wishes for the coming year:
1. May the increase in interest and demand for Namibia as a travel destination of choice be maintained and reinforced;
2. May Namibian stakeholders realise the need for cooperation and collaboration to jointly build “our business house” – as tourism is everyone’s business; and
3. May everyone in Namibia, and within the tourism sector in particular, realise the need for constant statistics provision, processing and publishing, to enable us to measure our success, in order to manage and market our beautiful Namibia to the world.
Happy 2017, everyone!
Gitta Paetzold is the CEO of the Hospitality Association of Namibia (HAN).