Namibia: Car Rental Businesses Buckle Under Covid-19

Car-hiring services in the country are in bad shape, and at the coast some businesses even had to sell their vehicles just to keep afloat.

It is normally a busy niche market - 4x4 bakkies for the untarred roads and small sedans for less challenging surfaces.

While locals also play a role, tourists are the biggest consumers of this kind of service.

There are five listed car-rental businesses at Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, which are also the only ones listed for the Erongo region - considered one of Namibia's top tourism destinations.

Two of the three businesses at Walvis Bay seem to not exist any more. Their telephone numbers are non-functional.

Whether their suspected non-existence is as a result of the pandemic could not be established. They do, however, have head offices in Windhoek.

The one remaining car-rental outlet at the harbour town, Coastal Car Hire, has taken a beating, according to owner Cynthia Swartz.

"The struggle has been real," she says, adding the company, which was established in 2002, had to sell 27 of their 35 rental vehicles, while also letting three of their staff complement of five go.

"It's like we are starting the business from scratch," Swartz says.

She says the vehicles had to be sold and costs cut to pay bank debts. This, however, only allowed the business to repay about 80% of these debts.

"We cannot give up, though. We have to continue operating with the little we have. We have lost many clients, and fortunately we have the support of a few local clients, but it is not nearly enough to keep service providers happy without tourists," she says.

Swartz remains optimistic and says that is how she built Coastal Car Hire up over the past two decades.

She says banks have been requested to be sympathetic amid the pandemic, although this does not excuse the business from its financial commitments.

"If the government can at least assist with start-up capital, it would be really helpful, just to keep the business afloat at least until the borders are open for tourists again," Swartz says.

The remaining two car-hire services at Swakopmund are Avis Rent-a-Car and Swakopmund Car Hire.

Avis, which is a branch of the Windhoek office, did not respond to questions emailed to them by the time of going to print.

Fanie van Wyk of Swakopmund Car Hire says their business has taken a hard knock - especially during the first three months of the lockdown last year.

"... no business ..," he says.

Van Wyk says the company reduced its fleet from 85 to 46 vehicles in the past year.

Some vehicles are financed by banks and the company used the money from sales to pay off the remaining vehicles in the fleet.

"Not all have been paid off, but we can handle the present instalments. Wesbank treated us well by extending [the repayment period] from 36 to 60 months," he says.

Cars were rented to local customers, but it was "very, very slow" and only picked up a bit recently.

The business did not increase its rates; it even reduced some to allow for vehicles to be hired, Van Wyk says.

The biggest challenge is to rent out bakkies and safari vehicles, he says, adding if tourists do not visit Namibia in the near future, these vehicles would have to be sold too.

Van Wyk says despite the company being a family business, two staff members have been retrenched.

He is not optimistic about the government's ability to assist businesses.

"I think the answer is a big no. I think the biggest problem is that no one can plan. Everything is so uncertain. Prices of vehicles escalate nearly every month, and one cannot escalate one's rental prices accordingly. I would say open the borders and people must adhere to the rules to safeguard themselves. This bug will be with us for a long time to come."

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