While that used to be the case in many other countries, business travel is rapidly taking over as the core segment of the travel market as African economies expand into manufacturing and production sectors, reducing reliance on raw mineral exports.
But very few countries in the world are even vaguely like Namibia. It is undoubtedly one of the most breath-taking eco-tourism destinations on the planet and a source of great mineral riches.
This begs the question, though, about how the travel industry in Namibia should develop in future and whether the government and private sector need to put more eggs into the basket of developing the business travel sector or leave them all in the leisure tourism industry.
As it stands, tourism is the fastest growing industry in Namibia.
According to Minister of Environment and Tourism Uahekua Herunga, tourism is a strategic sector in the National Development Plan 4 with promise for growth and job creation.
He says the tourism industry is “recognised and supported by the government for its increasing value and importance of sector linkages, its ability to generate foreign exchange earnings, employment, rural development, poverty reduction and empowerment of the local communities. The tourism industry presents great opportunities to promote economic, social development and environmental protection”.
As far as deciding on a future development path, my vote goes for distributing the load more evenly between business and leisure travel. This should be a joint effort by business and government to spread the risk, thereby providing greater job security and sustained poverty relief through industry education and training.
This is congruent with a Pricewaterhouse Coopers study last year dealing with Namibian hospitality trends, that says while business travel fluctuates with the health of the global economy, recreational or holiday travel is even more volatile because people tend to go on more elaborate holidays when disposable income is rising, but stay closer to home when disposable income is stagnating or there are concerns about future employment.
One of the best ways to stimulate business travel in a country that boasts such incredible natural features and wildlife is to look to the Meetings Incentives, Conventions and Events (MICE) market segment.
In the next couple of months Namibia will be hosting two international conventions that speak to the need for world-class conference facilities and infrastructure networks, as well as to the reasons why by far the largest percentage of visitors (nearly 40%) to the country are leisure travellers.
Those conferences are the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification Conference of Parties (COP 11) next month and the Adventure World Tourism Summit in October.
Both are considered large global events attracting hundreds of delegates and will be MICE performance tests for Namibia as a whole including airlines, hotels, tour operators and conference centres.
In a country where economic growth is tied to one major industry – mining – and shows no sign of medium term change, hospitality must seek other ways to attract business revenue and the international MICE market is an exceptionally good way to do it.
This market segment is worth billions of US dollars annually and a larger slice of that revenue could flow into Namibia if it begins to more aggressively market itself as an ideal conference destination that is boosted by add-on travel to unique places such as Sossusvlei, where the world’s largest dunes are located, and Koakoland where rare desert elephants and black rhino can be seen.
While the subject matter of the conferences is critical to the future of Namibia’s tourism industry, the meetings themselves will set the benchmark as to how the country performs as a conferencing destination – especially COP11 when the eyes of the world will be on Namibia.
In fact there is no business travel sector more complimentary to leisure tourism than the meetings industry. It is quite literally a match made in heaven because long haul delegates will by and large book leisure tours before or after their conferences.
But growing the conference sector as a means of generating more business travel spend in Namibia is not the sole responsibility of the hospitality industry and it needs a consolidated effort from both government and the private sector to develop this.
The Namibian tourism industry urgently needs a cohesive plan that will draw in the national tourism organisation, the ministry, tour operators, hotels, conference centres, local government and tribal chiefs to create a site map of all potential venues (in urban and rural areas), develop them as needed without environmental damage, then create one cohesive plan to market them to the MICE industry around the world.
There is a lot of wealth to be made from the meetings industry and a country with as much potential as Namibia deserves a chance to earn it.
*Arthur Gillis is the CEO of the Protea Hospitality Group, which comprises Protea Hotels and African Pride Hotels. The Protea Hospitality Group is the largest hotel group in Africa with approximately 130 hotels in 10 countries. There are 10 Protea Hotels in Namibia alone.
This article was first published on The Namibian.