Mariental — The cascading effect of the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the tourism market in the Hardap region in a big way, with many facilities located in close proximity to the Namib Desert finding it hard to open for business as most of them rely mainly on international tourists to make ends meet.
The information ministry Hardap office team recently paid a visit to a few lodges that offer holiday accommodation along the Sossusvlei area to assess how the Covid-19 pandemic is impacting operations at these facilities.
Our journey started early morning from Mariental and we drove the dusty C19 road from Maltahöhe to our destination at Sossusvlei.
On our way we passed several lodges situated alongside the road and most looked like ghost facilities with no sign of human activity taking place.
After driving about two hours, we came across several structures that looked like huts made from grass. Upon closer inspection, we read a sign that said 'Welcome to We Kebi Safari Lodge' and unanimously decided to drive to the gate. We rang the intercom and were greeted by a friendly voice.
After we had explained who we were and what our intention was, the automatic gate suddenly opened, and we drove through.
As we drove towards the reception area, we were greeted by a beautiful sight of three large white rhino, two zebra and a few gemsbok grazing in front of the reception area. The wildlife paid us no mind and continued to graze even when we attempted to take pictures of them.
The lodge's sight manager, Herman Aimhenge, welcomed us and informed us that the lodge is currently not receiving any international visitors and only a handful of local tourists.
"Covid-19 has affected us badly. We decided not to close the lodge because we feared the workers will suffer. We managed to negotiate with the staff and cut their salaries just to maintain their families. We also offer them some food," Aimhenge informed us.
Aimhenge pleaded that the government offer tourist accommodation facilities packages to maintain the staff. He said the lodge, whose name means 'Invitation' in Khoekhoegowab, was established in 2012 and offers accommodation facilities as well as game drives. He urged tourists to make their way to the lodge to enjoy the specials that are currently on offer.
Just as we were about to depart, Aimhenge directed us to the zebra that had made their way towards our vehicle. He called the female zebra by its name and said we could rub her back. As we headed closer, the tamed animal suddenly started moving towards us, much to the fright of my colleague who ran off. We all burst into laughter and said our goodbyes.
We continued our four-hour journey towards Sesriem where we found Gerda van Niekerk and Klaus Pritzen who manage the Sun Karros Dead Valley lodge. The lodge, which started operating in July last year is 60km away from Sossusvlei, making it the closest to the famous 'Deadvlei' tourist attraction.
According to Pritzen, the lodge has 20 chalets which can accommodate up to 40 people as well as 10 camping sites. It also offers an outdoor swimming pool and braai facilities for the guests.
"We usually receive international tourists mainly from Germany, Italy, France and England. The lodge is situated in the Namib-Naukluft Park, which is a big plus for us because the guests that stay with us can go in an hour before sunrise and an hour before sunset when the gates close," said Pritzen.
He said the pandemic has harshly affected the new lodge especially because it is peak season. He added that only local tourists visited the lodge during the lockdown for camping, however there are currently no visitors at the lodge except for two campers from Germany who arrived in early October.
He said in terms of job losses caused by the lockdown, the lodge did not retrench staff but instead hired them on a monthly contract basis. He said that before the lockdown, the lodge had a staff complement of 25 employees including management but only managed to retain seven employees.
"Unfortunately 90% of our employees were put on sabbatical until we can start again. The stock also expired during the course and some had to be written off - that is a big loss to the company because there is no income at the moment," Pritzen said.
Pritzen said the lockdown has however enabled them to conduct some maintenance and upgrade the lodge to protect it from the wind. He encouraged tourists, both local and international, to visit the lodge because it is the guests that make the lodge. "We want things to go back to normal, there is no atmosphere, we want the employees back too," he pleaded.
Ever since the Ministry of Environment and Tourism commenced with the tourism revival initiative on 1 September, international tourists can now enter the country through Hosea Kutako International Airport.
The tourists from Germany who are camping at the Dead Valley lodge informed us that they had booked with one of the tour operators in the country. The campers have been travelling to Namibia for the past 15 years and were more than eager to return again this year after the lockdown.
According to a tour operator, Katja Ahrens, the company she works for has lost out on clients because of the lockdown. She said that some of the potential tourists are not yearning to travel because of the restrictions imposed on travellers such as the five-day compulsory quarantine upon return to their respective countries.
"We have a lot of cars standing in our backyard, it's not only us, car rental companies are affected, and tour guides are affected. No one remembers our tour guides, these people now had to look for other jobs, and it is not easy for them," said Ahrens.
She said the company was fortunate to receive a payment holiday from the bank but added that as from November, the company will have to start paying again for the cars that they use to transport tourists.
Ahrens urged the government to speed up the stimulus packages they were promised earlier this year. "We filled in forms at Social Security but until now nothing is happening," said a frustrated Ahrens.
The government announced in April this year that it will offer a stimulus and relief package for those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes individuals and companies.
The tourism industry in Namibia is one of the fastest growing sectors in the country and contributes significantly to the gross domestic product (GDP) with over a million tourist visitors arriving in the country. According to the 2019 tourism statistics report, the country received 1, 6 million tourists. The number of tourists for this year are expected to be less because of the pandemic.