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Where are the Wild Ones? The Involvement of Indigenous Communities in Tourism in Namibia


Ecotourism in Namibia is strongly linked to a complex land tenure system, which has its roots in the administration of pre-independence Namibia. The notorious apartheid system divided Namibia into commercial freehold land owned by Namibians of European origin, national parks and game reserves, mining areas, and communal land. Communal land is home to the majority of Namibia's population and holds a incredible wealth and diversity of natural resources. It is here in these areas, where very little land use planning took place during the colonial administration, that disastrous damage to natural and cultural resources took place. After independence, the importance of an integrated approach to resource management was identified, which is known today in Namibia as Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM).


Various organizations, NGOs, and individuals with development and conservation backgrounds, as well as the Ministry of Environment and Tourism of the Republic of Namibia have pioneered the integrated management of resources on communal land. Garth Owen-Smith, Save the Rhino Trust, Wildlife Society and the Directorate of Environmental Affairs are but a few who deserve credit for their work in CBNRM. The objective of these efforts has always been the involvement of resident communities in land use planning and to create awareness regarding benefits and responsibilities from resource management. The government of Namibia identified this as a priority and drafted appropriate legislation in 1994. The cabinet approved the Wildlife Management, Utilization and Tourism in Communal Areas policy in June 1995.

During the early years following independence, various NGOs and other organizations pioneered creating basic tourism facilities at sites where visitors were known to travel regularly with the objective of providing direct benefits to local communities. These enterprises consisted of basic campsites, craft centers, and specially designed traditional villages for the interpretation of the area's indigenous culture. These projects gave thorough insight into the link between conservation and community development. If the attractions around the tourism enterprises were kept unspoilt and an intact natural environment was offered to visitors, cash income and direct employment flowed directly to the community from the tourism project.

The Namibia Community-Based Tourism Association

In 1995, several of these pioneering communities came together for a historic workshop. Facilitated by the World Wildlife Fund-USA funded LIFE project (Living in a Finite Environment), opportunities and threats facing communitybased tourism enterprises were discussed. The outcome of this three-day workshop was the formation of the Namibia Community-Based Tourism Association (NACOBTA).

NACOBTA is a grass-roots membership organization. A management committee of seven elected community members oversees the work of a program manager and a support staff of seven permanent positions. At present, the association receives program funding from the Swedish Government (Swedish International Development Agency) and the WWF/LIFE project.

At its inception in 1995, the association had a membership base of 16. Four years later, 42 members requested the assistance of NACOBTA. In 1998 a strategy was formulated that stipulates the role of the association in the years ahead. The main objectives are related to the well-being and welfare of rural communities through economic development and empowerment. The need to close the gap between community-based tourism (CBT) and private sector tourism as it exists in Namibia was identified. The cooperation is poor, mainly because of misperceptions on both sides. In order to make the member enterprises viable, co-operation with the private sector is essential. Trying to integrate CBT into Namibia's tourism product has become a priority objective of NACOBTA.

Community Involvement

A typical member enterprise of the association is one that belongs to a community as a whole (which in Namibia hardly ever consists of more than 1000 people) or community members operating in agreement with the traditional authority. In trying to achieve the objective of integrating the CBT subsector into the larger Namibian tourism product, NACOBTA conducted inventories of all member enterprises as well as the private tourism sector. It became apparent that the destination facilities offered by the community enterprises did not meet the market's requirements. The history of community-based tourism is a short one of enterprise development within communities that have no tourism or travel behavior in their social structure. Although the communities are aware of the link between the conservation of attractions and the economic benefits from visitors, there is little understanding of the market dynamics of the tourism system. The policy on wildlife management and tourism in communal areas identifies and safeguards the benefits from available resources for the local community. Initially these benefits were designed to be reaped by community-based tourism enterprises, which were wholly owned and managed by the local community. NACOBTA is now supporting a shift toward community involvement in tourism as its core objective. Community involvement in tourism aims to optimize one or more of the following benefits; fees (bed-night levy, entrance fees, concession fees), employment (including training), management (joint ventures, land use planning), and enterprises (community camp site, traditional village, craft center). In short, NACOBTA tries to optimize the benefit package which is sometimes greater when an upmarket, private sector lodge is developed that employs and trains community members, lets the community operate their own craft shop and cultural performances, and pays a bed-night levy per visitor.

Through one of its main support pillars, human resource development, NACOBTA has identified the tendency of communities to view their enterprises as the primary reason for tourists to visit their region. The campsites, traditional villages, and craft centers are often seen by communities as the real reason for tourists to enter the area.

Recent years have seen a sharp increase in visitors to the country's most remote areas. These communal areas are home to the largest variety of natural and cultural attractions outside of Namibia's national parks and game reserves. Endangered species like elephant, black rhino, Hartmann zebra, leopard, wild dog, and cheetah are but a few of the natural resources that community owned land has to offer. Adding the dramatic decor of endless unspoilt landscapes and the Namib Desert in all its variety, the tourism potential cannot be disputed. Although these resources are state owned, the policy allows for the benefits from both consumptive and non-consumptive usage of these resources to go directly to the community.

The big problem that CBTs now face is not being adequately market oriented, because the link between the community-based facilities and the marketplace was not clearly thought through in the planning phases of the project. Often locations were chosen without proper foresight, staff members were not trained with the necessary hospitality skills, and the facilities were not designed to meet international standards, even for budget accommodations.

NACOBTA's work is now focused on the creation of an optimum mixture of private and community involvement in the running and development of destination facilities, including accommodation, transport, and guide services. Work with the member San communities provides an excellent example of this new approach.

The San communities

Namibia is home to one of the most interesting and mysterious cultures still found in the world today: the San. One distinct San group, the Ju'/hoansi, has been involved in community-based tourism for several years.

The Ju'/hoansi reside in the eastern Otjozondjupa district, which used to be eastern Bushmanland. They have profited from the previously discussed national communal area policy and are Namibia's first communal area conservancy (a land unit with clearly defined borders whose inhabitants have agreed to a management plan and management structure for the utilization of available natural resources) called Nyae Nyae. About 2000 people spread over 30 villages inhabit the 9000 km conservancy. A communal area conservancy has to produce a management plan, which explains income and expenditure before the Ministry of Environment and Tourism approves its status. Funds generated by natural resources and spin-off activities like tourism must cover the operating costs of the conservancy and the conservancy members can use the surplus for community programs and development objectives.

Eastern Otjozondjupa has been an adventure tourism destination for several years. Mainly Namibian and South African nationals have visited the area on off-road expeditions looking for the San, who are called "wild ones" by the local tourists, when entering the historical land of the once-famous hunter/gatherer. These visitors camped freely in the Eastern Otjozondjupa area, bought cultural artifacts direct from villages cheaply and introduced the western lifestyle to local people. Before the conservancy, benefits were rarely seen from tourism.

The long process of conservancy formation is now paying off. Entitled to compensation for the overnight stay of all visitors, and to entrance fees of commercial tour operators, the Nyae Nyae conservancy is starting to see the benefits of conserving their natural resources. The highlight of their entrance into the tourism industry is the signing of a joint venture with a private guest/hunting farm regarding the consumptive utilization of selected big game species on their land. In addition, several campsites are set aside to cater to visitors in all parts of the large area, and the economic benefits from cultural activities such as tracking and traditional food gathering trails has become so important that the gains are actually exceeding those of standard bed-nights.

The way community tourism in Nyae Nyae is organized allows for total village and family involvement in tourism activities. Visitors cannot contact the destination facility in advance. On arrival, the guests decide which of the allocated campsites to select and when to go with community members on an interpretative tracking trail (hunting techniques, medicinal plant trail, veld food gathering). Some of the available people in the village conduct the guiding services on these trails. Motivation is high as this is money that is earned directly by the person who guides the visitors. However, these are activities only offered by those villages located at a campsite. NACOBTA has evaluated these services and is at present working on a system to get some of the other member villages involved in these activities. This will lead towards a more equal division of income within the communal area conservancy and will also create skills development for a larger part of the community. One important benefit of the program is that the interpretative trails see many young Ju'/hoansi people join in the activity. The transferral of skills is imminent.


In addition to the maintenance of skills, the involvement in tourism has brought control of their own livelihood to the Ju'/hoansi. For decades, the San have been one of the most marginalized cultures in Southern Africa. With the innovative policies on CBNRM set in place by the Namibian government, the determination of the Nyae Nyae people and the assistance of experienced NGOs, the Ju'/hoansi are able to control developments related to natural resource utilization themselves. The signing of the first joint venture agreement with a private safari operator has been a milestone in control and self-determination. Strong involvement by the San people over their own destiny, while still relying heavily on the quality of their environment for survival, is possible through community involvement in tourism. Integrating local and indigenous human resources in tourism planning is the model which justifies the term "ecotourism for the future" as a viable form of sustainable development, which can contribute to the survival of disappearing cultures like the San.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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