Namibian tourism officials tour MontanaBy: ZACK BENOIT
FOURTEEN tourism officials from Namibia are in Montana, USA on a 10 day visit to share ideas and build relations with their American counterparts.
As part of a tourism exchange, the delegation – made up of government officials, non-government organisations and village and conservancy officials – will be in Montana until Saturday on a whirlwind tour, hosted by Billings-based adventure tourism company Austin-Lehman Adventures and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), to learn about local tourism, wildlife and conservation efforts and share their own experiences and ideas from home.
“What we’re hoping to do is build relationships that continue long after this,” said Dan Austin, Austin-Lehman’s founder and owner. “Once we open these doors, these conversations will continue.”
After about 24 hours of travel time, the group arrived in Billings last Thursday, where they were greeted by a small delegation of Austin-Lehman employees, city tourism officials and a member of the Crow tribe.
Usiel Ndjavera, a tourism business adviser with the WWF in Namibia and said the idea is for all parties involved – Montanan and Namibian alike – to trade ideas and see what works and what doesn’t.
“We are here to learn about what you do in terms of tourism,” Ndjavera said.
Tourism in Namibia is a booming industry, bringing about a million people each year.
Austin described successful Namibian model in which conservancy lodges are built on land donated by local villages. In exchange, lodge owners share a portion of the profits with them. They are also hired as employees to protect wildlife, which gives a boost to tourism.
He said that, while thousands of miles away, Namibians face many tourism and wildlife issues similar to Montanans. Take recently resurgent predator populations there and in Montana, for example.
“The lions’ population has been protected and there are more of them now,” Austin said. “That creates an environment where the lions are eating their goats. Now what does that remind you of here? It’s like the wolves.”
To that effect, the Montana tour will focus on areas and issues that, in one way or another, the Namibians deal with as well. The Namibians will speak to wolf biologists and ranchers, take tours of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, visit the Crow Indian Reservation and take in a Montana State University football game.
First, though, they headed over to ZooMontana for a welcome ceremony featuring traditional Crow dances, a zoo tour and a presentation of a crate to be filled with 400 bicycles to be sent to Namibia’s Wuparo Conservancy in the Caprivi Region through Wheels of Change, a nonprofit run by Austin that provides bikes as empowerment tools.
Last Friday, the group visited the Crow reservation, where tribal tourism director Jackie Yellowtail taught them about the native culture.
“The cultural side is really important to us as a tribe, to learn who they are and teach them who we are,” she said.
The success Namibia has had with tourism and private/public partnerships is especially interesting to the tribe.
“They’ve been such a success, with how they’ve been able to build an infrastructure,” Yellowtail said. “It’s just an excellent way to start building a foundation and learning how different indigenous cultures are successful.”
From the Namibian side, how national parks manage tourism, heavy traffic and wildlife is of special note, as are tribal tourism efforts, Ndjavera said.
“How do you benefit from it,” he asked. “How can we deal with it?”