06 Oktober 2011 | Reiseberichte

Commitment to conservation: Wolwedans is going green and leading by example in eco management

When reading comments left by visitors to Wolwedans situated in the NamibRand Nature Reserve just south of Sossusvlei, it seems most struggle for terminology in trying to describe their feelings towards this special place.
While words like `breathtaking', `spectacular', `stunning', `overwhelming' and `magnificent' convey the sense of awe apparently shared by most authors, they don't fully explain the fascination this extraordinary piece of untouched nature exudes. So what is it that draws people including celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt to this inhospitable and secluded part of the globe despite the apparently prohibitive costs associated with going there?
Stephan Brückner, founder and managing director of Wolwedans considers the question for a while, clearly challenged in trying to settle on one of what appear to be several possible answers. "We try to provide an experience as opposed to a mere destination", he offers after a short pause. Prompted to elabo-rate on this philosophy and suggest reasons for the magic and magnetism of Wolwedans he tenders the word `exclusivity' in trying to describe what distinguishes this location from the many places of interest Namibia has to offer.

"What makes Wolwedans unique is first and foremost the complete isolation of the region", he says and continues: "The nature reserve covers an area of over 170000 hectares while providing a mere 44 beds for guests. As a result visitors are unlikely to see another car while staying here and can savour the unspoilt surroundings as if they were the only people present."
Perhaps the slogan "10000000m" just for you" sums up best why Wolwedans has managed to establish itself as one of the most sought after destinations for discerning tourists looking for solitude in a setting unscarred by human habitation. Unlike other popular destinations in Namibia like Etosha Pan that attract thousands of tourists each year, Wolwedans is exceptional in that it's management is consciously striving to avoid mass tourism and keep the number of guests to an absolute minimum.
High revenue, low impact"It would be easy for us, to triple the amount of beds while reducing our rates thereby increasing the number of potential visitors and maximizing proceeds in the process", says Brückner, obviously immune to that temptation. After all he prides himself on having pursued a policy of sustainable development since inception of Wolwedans that favours long term conservation above the short term pursuit of profit.

As such Wolwedans hasn't paid any dividends to its shareholder since being established 16 years ago but has rather invested a fixed proportion of income derived from visitors back into the preservation of the sensitive ecosystem of the area. To date Wolwedans has invested in excess of N$ 10 million (or 15 percent of turnover) derived from park fees into conservation and management programs. In addition the Wolwedans foundation was established which receives an additional 15 percent of turnover geared towards social responsibility projects. In effect about one third of all money generated trough tourism is ploughed back into conservation and community
development programs.

"We consider ourselves as guardians of this paradise and strive to maintain its present state for future generations - the tourism operation is basically the means to achieving that", Brückner insists and adds with a smile: "Ultimately you can't take your life earnings to the grave and I consider it more important to be remembered for having made a difference to the benefit of my country rather than be admired for having accumulated material possessions."

Whereas that ideal is a noble one it does involve some hard choices and has exposed the management of Wolwedans to occasional criti-cism of being elitist. While acknowledging that a stay at one of the four camps in Wolwedans is a pricy privilege he feels it is without alternative. After all, the only instrument to regulate the number of guests and avoid an unsustainable mass influx of visitors that would damage the fragile desert environment is by way of a cor-responding fee structure.

Brückner is aware of the discriminatory aspect of the fee structure but finds it unavoidable. After all the concept of high revenue low impact tourism is by definition geared towards the more affluent visitor, able to afford the luxu-ry of a stay in one of the most desired destinations worldwide. Conscious of the fact, that a visit to Wolwedans would normally be out of the financial reach of locals the management does however endeavour to make the area accessible to less wealthy guests as well by offering reduced rates of up to 66 percent for Namibians and residents of surrounding SADCstates between May and June each year, which is the best season to visit the area.
Social responsibility projectsIt is the unparalleled natural beauty and seclusion offered at Wolwedans that sets the destination apart and is in essence the commendation justifying the comparatively high costs of visiting the reserve. "To us luxury is not golden taps or marble bath tubs", explains Brückner and continues: "It is rather the liberating experience of space, the opportunity to relish the grandeur and tranquillity of one of the last pristine places on earth that is truly untainted by human activity."

To maintain the natural state of the area while simultaneously offering the comforts discerning tourists expect comes at a price. Not only do all materials, foodstuffs and supplies need to be transported from Windhoek about 450 kilometres away, but providing amenities like refuse removal or water and electricity supply present particular challenges in a remote, fragile and harsh desert setting.
"We incur tremendous costs to the benefit of the visitor without him or her being aware of it", stresses Brückner. By way of explanation he refers to the expensive acquisition of solar panels to generate power. "The tou-rist is not concerned whether his drinks are cooled in a fridge driven by generator or powered through solar energy", he muses. "To us this question is important however because we endeavour to reduce our carbon footprint and minimize the impact on the sensitive environment."

Another element adding to the high running costs at Wolwedans is personnel expenditure. Wolwedans employs a workforce of 88 permanent staff members attending to the needs of a maximum of only 44 visitors which translates to no less than 2 employees per guest. In addition the costs involved in the upkeep of the four camps are particularly high since all facilities are built from wood for ecological reasons and require a lot of maintenance.

Brückner considers the expenditure required to provide an exclusive experience for his guests not as a financial burden but rather as an investment in the future. "The glo-bal trend in travel is clearly in the direction of eco-tourism", he asserts. With that in mind he simultaneously provides the reason for the average spending in access of N$ 3 million per annum for conservation related project at NamibRand as well as community empowerment programs with main focus on vocatio-nal training.

According to Brückner international travellers are increasingly becoming sensitized to the need for protecting the natural habitat and are ever more conscious of this fact when deciding on their holiday destination. As such it is becoming progressively more important for operators competing for tourists to go green and take steps aimed at protecting the area marketed to international visitors.
In it for the long runThe relevant efforts of Brückner and his team have not gone unnoticed internationally. Not only was Wolwedans named one of the world's 50 best eco-lodges in the magazine National Geographic Traveler but was also selected as the first and thus far only Namibian establishment chosen by the organisation Global Ecosphere Retreats as one of ten so called Long Run Destinations.

The initiative (www.thelongrun.com) was launched by Jochen Zeitz, founder of the Zeitz foundation as well as chairman and CEO of the PUMA, specializing in sport gear and lifestyle products. Being chosen as a Long Run destination certifies, that the management of Wolwedans is adopting concrete measures to sustainably manage a natural area of conservation value and is committed to promoting the community and culture of the region.

Brückner is visibly proud when taking about the distinction associated with being named a Long Run destination. He does however not consider it a personal reward for or acknowledgement of years of hard work but rather as an incentive for other players in the local hospitality industry to follow the example set by the Wolwedans team.
"We all need to understand that the natural beauty our country is blessed with is not something finite we can take for granted", he warns. "Rather we have to appreciate the danger of overexploiting the very habitat that attracts tourists to our country by exposing it to uncontrolled tourism driven by short term pro-
fit motives."

In light of this very real danger Brückner advocates the introduction of green buttons and fully supports the Namibian eco awards certifying the recipient is adhering to best practices of sustainable resource management. This he feels will play an important role in the local tourism industry in future as more and more travellers select their holiday destinations according to defined criteria of environmental protection.

Coupled with the conservation objective is the Wolwedans foundations programme of social development through education and training. To date the foundation has pledged more than N$ 3 million towards the Namibian Institute of Culinary Education (NICE) as well as the Desert Academy for Vocational Training which teaches young Namibians all aspects of the hospitality industry including courses on housekeeping, maintenance, guiding, kitchen and administration. To date more than 100 students have passed their exams and received a diploma by the Natio-nal Training Authority (NTA) of which many have since been recruited by local hotels and restaurants.
Unparalleled natural beautyThe institute NICE is a training school for chefs, which runs a commercial restaurant in the heart of Windhoek and has established itself as a popular place of cooking excellence. On top of that the Wolwedans foundation is involved in small enterprise development as well as sport funding and provides bursaries to employees wishing to further their studies.
While these efforts first and foremost benefit the community and staff, they are not of a purely altruistic nature. "Service can only be good, if the people delivering it are well trained and above all enjoy their work", Brückner emphasizes. That this is the case at Wolwedans seems obvious not only when observing the friendly staff in action but also when considering that there is very little staff turnover at the company which has never suffered any labour unrest since its inception.

Being one of the largest privately owned nature reserves NamibRand originated in 1992 as a dream of Brückners father Albie to extend the desert frontiers through the integration of a large number of former sheep farms, whose previous owners struggled to survive on livestock development in this arid region. Albies aim was to establish a sanctuary free of fences where wildlife decimated by illegal poaching in the past could once again roam their natural habitat without human interference.

To date 13 former livestock farms have been combined to form one continuous natural ha-bitat with the integration of additional land being planned for the future. The reserve has several land owners and is registered as a section 21 association not for gain.
Deriving its name from the Afrikaans expression "where the wolves dance" the nature reserve is bordered by the Naukluft park in the west and the majestic Nubib mountain range in the East. While it's relative proximity to Sossusvlei might suggest the area to be dominated by sand dunes the opposite is true.

As the earlier mentioned guests comments attest, what impresses visitors the most is the exceptional diversity of the location which represents and amalgamation of sceneries unique to Namibia from the endless grass plains, to towering mountains, gravel plains, rolling hill sides, inselbergs, stretches of savannah and red sand dunes. Similar to the many facets of the land the reserve harbours a fast amount of different game species including springbok, giraffe, zebra, gemsbok, kudu, red hartebeest, bat-eared fox, leopard, caracal, genet, ostrich and bat-eared fox as well as over one hundred species of birds.

When trying to decide where to stay at Wolwedans the visitor can choose between a selection of classic safari accommodation each with its own individual setting and design: The dunes lodge nestled on top of an imposing plateau overlooking panoramic desert vistas, the dune camp positioned on the edge of a 250-meters high sand dune and consisting of tents pitched on wooden platforms, the boulders camp at the foot of massive granite outcrops and the stylish private camp situated in an idyllic valley and sleeping a mere four guests.
All camps were constructed using poles, elevated wooden decks and roll-up canvas walls. Since no concrete was used during construction all accommodation establishments can be dismantled easily enabling the environment to restore itself in just a few short months after a possible departure.

The reserve has awarded five tourism concessions which pay a daily per-bed fee to the reserve and thus contribute to its conservation. These are the Sossus Vlei Desert Lodge (ope-rated by `& Beyond'), Tok-Tokkie Trails, offering guided walks in the dunes and mountain ranges of NamibRand, the Family Hideout situated in the South of the reserve and providing self-catering accommodation as well as Namib Sky Adventures offering hot-air ballooning.
In addition the reserve hosts the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust (NaDEET) a non-profit Namibian trust established in 2003 and aimed at empowering Namibians to make decisions for a sustainable future. The NaDEET centre provides a hands-on, experiential environmental education program on biodiversity loss and over consumption of natural resources thereby trying to raise awareness for conservation among the younger generation.

Considering the many achievements and accolades attained, what is left to aspire to for Brückner? He contemplates the issue for a while and says: "Trying to maintain the status quo is a form of regression for me. While we have achieved a lot, we still have a long way to go and have many plans in the pipeline from building class rooms for the students of the desert academy, to the envisaged integration of additional land, the erection of a boutique hotel next to the current NICE restaurant and the commissioning of a state of the art solar hybrid power system currently under construction."

When considering the challenges associated with these endeavours and his vow to not be in it for the money, what benefits accrue to Brückner from his endeavours? "I look at myself as a social entrepreneur and consider Wolwedans as the social concern driving what matters to me most: Our commitment to conservation and community empowerment. At the end of the day I guess my personal reward is reading the glowing comments left by our visitors and knowing we contribute to the upliftment of our county."

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