ATWS opening

Parliament Gardens, Namibia. 26 October. The purple blossoms of the tall Jacaranda trees were falling on the grass, the stage, and the delegates gathered for the opening of the tenth Adventure Travel World Summit, the first in Africa. This arid country on the south-west coast of the continent prays for rain at this time of year. Luckily though, the day was blessed with a perfect blue sky.

 The Adventure Travel Trade Association holds an annual indaba to promote responsible and sustainable tourism, and for delegates to meet, exchange ideas, and to see what the host country has to offer. Last year it was Switzerland, before that, Mexico. The President of the Association, Shannon Stowell, took the podium to ask the question: “Why Namibia?”

The gardens were packed with VIPs, travel delegates and writers, and representatives from Namibia’s communal conservancies which cover twenty per cent of the land and provide a good part of the answer to Stowell’s question. He asked all those who had been on a trip – a pre-summit adventure – to yell, which they did with enthusiasm.

“I was inspired every single day by the Namibians I met on my trip,” said Stowell, explaining just why the Summit had come to Africa. At the Mexico Summit, when countries made a pitch to host the Olympics of tourism, Stowell said that the travel trade had fallen in love with the Namibians who had attended the Summit, especially with their passion for tourism and the environment.

Sustainable tourism was to be the key theme on a day when the WWF also gave a Gift to the Earth Award to Namibia for its conservation efforts, which are linked to responsible tourism.

“Imagine the world in 50 years’ time,” Stowell asked: “the loss of species, habitat and culture.” Namibia, he went on, has the opportunity to become an example to the world as an unspoilt destination. The Summit, he said, would place Namibia on the world tourism map, but turning to the environment said “We are here to affect how tourism works in the future.”

Chief Anyaoku took up the theme. As past President of the WWF and Deputy Secretary General of the Commonwealth, the Nigerian Chief is respected worldwide as a diplomat and conservationist. He is an old friend of the Founding President of Namibia, Dr Sam Nujoma, who was honoured with the WWF Gift to the Earth Award in 1998, after the first four communal conservancies were formed, opening the door to a conservation movement that has flourished across much of the country and led to a remarkable recovery of wildlife.

It was a personal pleasure, the Chief said, to be in Namibia to present a second Gift to the Earth, fifteen years on, in recognition of the conservation progress made in 79 communal conservancies. The WWF, he said, makes the award for exceptional conservation achievements which are a role model to the world. More than 20 other countries have visited Namibia to learn from the model, in which tourism is an essential ingredient.

As a former President of the WWF, the Chief has travelled widely, seen much, and finds Namibia’s conservation achievements “truly remarkable,” pointing out to applause that the communal conservancies have the world’s largest population of free-roaming black rhino, and expanding populations of lion, elephant and cheetah.

People benefit too, explained the Chief. Communal conservancy members benefit directly from tourism and hunting. In 2012 alone, benefits amounted to 55 million Namibia Dollars (US$ 6.5 , and since 1998 the Namibian economy has benefitted to the tune of 2.7 billion Namibia Dollars.

Before handing a framed poster to President Pohamba to celebrate the Gift to the Earth, Chief Anyaoku urged the Adventure Travel Trade Association to note how Namibia has linked tourism to conservation and development; themes that His Excellency President Hifikepunye Pohamba took up.

It was the President’s role to open the summit officially, but before doing so he welcomed travel delegates to “the land of wide open spaces and breath-taking scenery,” and invited everybody to visit and enjoy the hospitality of the people. The President noted that Namibia’s arid eco-systems are as fragile as they are beautiful, and that Namibia, the first country to write environmental protection into its constitution, has a responsibility to conservation. Legislation has led to the sustainable use of wildlife in conservancies, which have brought positive economic benefits to rural communities.

Calling Chief Anyaoku his brother, the President accepted the Gift to the Earth Award on behalf of the Namibian people, especially those in the front line of conservation, community game guards, stating that “Your work has not gone unnoticed.”

The Gift and the day were, above all, a celebration, and to the sound of ululations the President visited cultural groups and food stalls offering kapana – local grilled meats – and other Namibian delicacies. Visitors to Namibia are not obliged to eat Mopane worms: succulent caterpillars from the trees found across the north, but those who do may come back for more!

As Nama, San, Himba, Kavango and Owambo groups danced to beating drums, another award took place. The conservancy game guards at the heart of conservation were given framed posters celebrating the Gift to the Earth – a gift that they, as much as anybody else, have given.

Steve Felton
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