Responsible tourism in Namibia

Namibia, on the whole, has done tourism "right". It has become a force for conservation - of fragile habitats, highly endangered wildlife, and cultural traditions. Through well-managed tours, it educates visitors, and income from these tours is often in turn used to educate local residents and children, creating a happy cycle of awareness and involvement.

However, there are still certain local issues that travellers should be aware of, and questions that they are encouraged to ask, to ensure that tourism in Namibia continues to genuinely support conservation and communities.

People & culture in Namibia

The San

The San, also known as the Bushmen, are believed to be southern Africa's original inhabitants - and around a third of the 90,000 remaining San live in Namibia. Much has been made of Namibia's impressive conservation record and the development of vast national parks and reserves.

However, the wildlife successes are only one side of the story. In many cases, the gazetting of protected areas means that local communities are evicted - and many San now find themselves landless. The loss of access to their traditional hunting grounds means that many are malnourished and dependent on food aid - as well as at risk of losing the traditions, skills and knowledge of the landscape that have been acquired over thousands of years.
What you can do
Several tourism projects in northwestern Namibia support San communities, including the Nyae Nyae Conservancy and Tsumkwe Lodge. Communities who participate in tourism have benefited over the years as they are able to maintain their lands, support themselves and avoid encroachment from farmland. There is still much prejudice towards the San and their supposedly "primitive" culture, but successful tourism initiatives are starting to shift this opinion, as their value is recognised.
However, badly managed tourism is even more damaging than no tourism. Before booking a tour with the San, ask some questions of your operator: How much involvement does the community have in the tours? How are they compensated? Does your guide speak the local language? Does tourism support community projects?
Above all, ensure that your visit is not a one-way experience. Ask your hosts questions - and invite them to ask you questions back. Interact, rather than just standing behind your camera. This is not only respectful to the community; it's also guaranteed to give you a much more memorable trip.

Communal conservancies

Close to a fifth of all land in Namibia is protected by communal conservancies. These are areas which are managed by local communities, and recognised by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Conservancies can provide opportunities for communities living in some of Namibia's harshest landscapes to gain income from their land, as well as ensure that it is managed in a sustainable way. While some conservancies are licenced for trophy hunting and meat harvesting - using strict quotas - as well as limited agriculture, others focus on tourism. The communities partner with private businesses to build lodges and camps, offer game drives and bush walks, and enable visitors to experience life in the Namibian bush.

By choosing to stay on or visit a communal conservancy, you are supporting rural communities and contributing to the conservation of their land and wildlife. There is also evidence that tourism is beginning to replace trophy hunting in some conservancies; by taking game drives you are demonstrating that this, too, can be profitable for the communities, and ultimately a more ethical and sustainable alternative to trophy hunting.

Emma Gregg is a travel writer specialising in responsible tourism, with a particular focus on Africa. She explains how to ensure your visit to Namibia supports local communities and conservation: "Visit a community owned tourism project in a conservancy. Namibia has a small but growing number of brilliant lodges, campsites, safari experiences and cultural encounters which are wholly owned by rural communities, including the Himba of the Kunene region in northwest Namibia, and the Ju'/hoansi San of Otjozondjupa in the northeast. Namibia led the way in creating conservancies - areas in which local communities take responsibility for conservation and management of their land and its wildlife in order to generate income for themselves through sustainable farming and tourism."

Read more about Namibia's Communal Conservancies at

Wildlife & environment in Namibia

Wildlife handling

There are several private reserves and sanctuaries scattered across central Namibia, which do excellent work protecting, rehabilitating and releasing big cats, as well as other wildlife. Most Namibia itineraries will include a trip to at least one of these - and income from tourism is one of the main ways these organisations are able to maintain their reserves.

However, some of them also encourage the handling of big cats - particularly cheetahs. At Responsible Travel we don't believe this is necessary. Habituated wildlife cannot be returned to the wild, and regardless of whether they are living in a reserve or the savanna, they are still wild animals.

What you can do
If visiting or volunteering at one of the reserves, find out if they allow the handling of big cats, and question if this is really necessary, for the sake of a few photos to show friends back home. Some big cat reserves have banned the handling of wildlife on ethical grounds: this should really be an incentive to visitors - not a deterrent.

Seal culling

Hundreds of thousand of Cape fur seals live along Namibia's coastline - and they are a popular tourist attraction. However, the seals consume more fish that Namibia's commercial fishing industry, and the government authorises a cull of around 80,000 seal pups annually, which it claims keeps fish stocks in balance.

Culling takes place in a coastal reserve - bringing into question the reserve's purpose. Animal rights groups also object to the culling method - the seals are beaten with clubs - although some say this is preferable to shooting, which would spook the rest of the colony.
Refusing to travel to Namibia because of the cull reduces the chance for people to make a living in more sustainable ways
Read articles on this issue by the BBC and The Guardian.
What you can do
Those taking part in the cull are portrayed as barbaric - but rural Namibians often have few economic alternatives. The seals are not endangered and numbers remain consistent. Refusing to travel to Namibia because of the cull, as some claim to do, simply reduces the chance for people to make a living in more sustainable ways, forcing them into more questionable employment and potentially prolonging this type of activity.

Responsible tourism tips

Water is extremely scarce in Namibia. Take short showers rather than baths and reuse towels. Some lodges provide buckets in the shower to catch water while it is heating and while you are showering. This is then used by staff for cleaning - you can also use it to do laundry. Clothes dry fast in the desert! Limited water is also easily contaminated. Most lodges provide biodegradable toiletries and laundry detergents, but if bringing your own or camping, please use environmentally-friendly products. Most dune life lives within 10cm of the surface, so plants, nests and wildlife can be destroyed in moments by quad bikes and off-road vehicles. Namibia also has fragile lichen fields which take decades to grow back if damaged. If you do decide to take part in these activities, keep to the trail, follow your guide's instructions and drive slowly, keeping an eye out for plants and wildlife in front of you. Fires start fast and burn hard in the desert; never drop cigarette butts or matches on the ground, be extremely careful when building fires, and keep water to hand to extinguish sparks and embers. Don't camp by waterholes or streams. Animals often walk two or three days to find water. If you are camped there they won't go closer, which can mean having to wait another day or two to drink.
Paul van Schalkwyk, photographer:
"You have to be really aware of leaving vehicle tracks. Some of the semi-arid desert landscapes form a crust, and once the vehicle breaks the crust it leaves a track that will be visible for decades. You are leaving almost permanent scars on the landscape. So if you drive there yourself or with a guide, stay on existing routes and never ever make new tracks."

Stephan Bruckner, owner of the Wolwedans camps:
"Really ask questions of your accommodation and be aware of 'greenwashing'. Some accommodations put three solar panels on the roof and call themselves an ecolodge. Sustainability entails so much more: it depends on what you plough back into the community."
Written by Vicki Brown
Photo credits: [Page banner: Eric Bauer] [San Bushman: David Barrie] [Cheetah: Frontierofficial] [Seals: Sosne]