With misinformation and greenwashing rife in tourism, ‘Behind The Green’ takes it back to basics. Back to storytelling and human connection. Hear from the visionaries behind the world’s leading sustainable travel experiences, as well as inspiring experts who help us to REIMAGINE, RESET, and REINVENT tourism.
Interview by Rebecca Woolford
Short-term vs. long-term.
Our ability to focus on our immediate surroundings, otherwise known as short-termism, was once critical to our survival. According to scientists, our brain hasn’t changed much over the past 160,000 years. So, this desire for instant gratification, innate in all of us, is not surprising.
Short-termism, both rooted in our most primal instincts and encouraged by technology, and evident throughout our democratic systems has brought about the biggest challenge humanity now faces, climate change.
To thrive and not only survive as individuals and as a society, we must shift from short-term quick wins to a long-term outlook, from efficiency to sustainability. Factoring the long-term into decision-making is critical when it comes to environmental sustainability.
The power of long-term thinking.
In one of the world’s harshest and most unforgiving environments Stephan, director of Wolwedans, is from a generation of long-term thinkers.
Wolwedans is a collection of camps in the middle of a serene desert. Starting with just four igloo tents and a campfire back in 1995, today this conservation and community-focused camp looks a little different.
Wolwedans was nominated for the Tourism for Tomorrow awards, awarded one of the highest accolades in the Namibian eco-tourism travel industry, and was one of the very few accredited Global Ecosphere Retreat® by The Long Run, so you can imagine my excitement to welcome them to ‘Behind the Green’.
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did…
On the left: Stephan greeting guests at Wolwedans. On the right Stephan enjoying food with friends
Thank you for making the time to be here Stephan. It makes sense to start at the very beginning. Take us back to 1995, when I believe this vision for a healthier land began and when Wolwedans, a collection of camps, was born.
“It actually started earlier than that. My family has been in Namibia for about 100 years. My grandfather immigrated here in 1923.
The NamibRand Nature Reserve was a project my father initiated in the early 80s. I believe he bought the first piece of land in 1982, and then two farms followed in the mid-80s, and then there was a big push to expand the reserve in the early 90s. That’s how far back it all started.
My father knew the area well from his early days as a salesman. At that time the farmers in Maltahöhe – the closest town to Wolwedans, a good 180 kilometers further to the east – would tell my father, ‘Don’t waste your time going down there, those farmers are all broke and you’re not going to sell any pumps or diesel engines.’ The story goes he went regardless and although he might not have sold any pumps, he fell in love. It is arguably one of Namibia’s most beautiful landscapes.
Wolwedans first tented camp
I was a kid about 12 or 13 when I first joined my dad on a trip to NamibRand. Years later, when I returned from my studies in Germany, I was tasked to develop tourism. Back then Tourism was very much in its infancy in Namibia. It was just a big white canvas. There were no benchmarks, no competitors, no market trends, no regulations, nothing.
In 2007 – with the understanding that it was not only about conservation and ‘saving the Oryx’ the time had come to give back to the community. We registered the non-profit Wolwedans Foundation and initiated the Wolwedans Desert Academy. In 2019, we won the Namibian Responsible Tourism Award and we’ve continued evolving ever since.”
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Solitude and stillness are in abundance at Wolwedans
It must have been an incredible environment to grow up in but with its own challenges, extremes of temperature, and the almost constant lack of water. What kind of impact does the NamibRand Nature Reserve, the largest private nature reserve in Southern Africa, have on its visitors?
“I think the biggest impact is the space, the solitude, and stillness of the desert. There is a very special energy here. It can kindle your soul, and in equal measure be harsh and unforgiving. Both of these extremes do their work.
There is no doubt this desert has a profound impact on people, especially people from the Northern Hemisphere. But also for locals, anybody from Namibia loves visiting. Sometimes we have well-traveled guests who have sort of ‘seen it all’, and even for them, the Namib desert has got something that other places just haven’t got. It’s almost spiritual. A connection to something up there.
We’ve got clients from Europe that have been visiting Wolwedans for 15 years in a row. Namibia has got something that draws people back, the wide open spaces, and very few people. I mean the whole country has about two and a half million inhabitants and it’s more than three times the size of the UK.”
Hot air balloon rides and outdoor dining experiences
As one of the oldest and driest deserts in the world, I’m not surprised it has a special energy. Protecting and preserving the Pro-Namib Nature Reserve for future generations has long been the focus of Wolwedans. Since 2011 your collection has been committed to the Long Run’s 4Cs – Conservation, Community, Culture, and Commerce. Can you walk us through each C?
“We were fortunate to be one of the founding members of the Long Run. When it first started we were invited to a two-day workshop in London where we had to find a framework that accommodated both a two-hectare rainforest sanctuary in Costa Rica and a 200,000-hectare desert reserve in Namibia. We asked: What could be the common denominator or framework? And we came up with the 4C model.
The first C is ‘Commerce’ which is obviously about making money; the more the merrier, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it shouldn’t be about chasing the buck, instead, we approach things in a more holistic way. In our case, commerce is the running of the lodges and camps, but it can be anything. It could be investments, property … whatever you do to make money.
The second C is ‘Conservation’. That’s taking care of the land and your natural resources. In our case, that part is taken care of by the Nature Reserve. The park fee (conservation levy), is collected by us on behalf of the NamibRand Nature Reserve. Every guest pays, but it’s not part of our profit and loss. We pass it straight onto the reserve. At the end of last year, we had accumulated 30 million Namibia dollars of levies, that’s roughly 1.4 million British pounds, and that money goes straight into the conservation of the land. Conservation at Wolwedans revolves around resources, so fresh water and subsequently wastewater management, renewable energy of course, and then – very importantly – solid waste management, where we in the last 18 months really made major advances in order to set new benchmarks and trends. It’s also about reducing our carbon footprint and we also have a tree project where we raise trees from seeds and nurture them and guests can plant them.
Wildlife in The NamibRand Nature Reserve
The third C is ‘Community’ which basically means that you should be a responsible corporate citizen and provide more than just jobs. In our case, we decided 14 years ago that we should do vocational training, so we started off with hospitality training. We have now expanded that to horticulture training and in the pipeline is facility maintenance. We’ve trained over 340 young Namibians in hospitality. And 90% of these youngsters went on to get jobs in the Namibian hospitality sector, not at Wolwedans. We take on about 10% of the total graduates and the rest are ‘released’ into the industry.
Lastly, there’s ‘Culture’ and as much as the world faces a species extinction with biodiversity collapse, we also face a cultural extinction thanks to the internet and globalisation. And whilst you can’t stop that, we as long-runners feel that this vast bouquet of beautiful cultures out there in the world should really somehow be celebrated and protected and make people more conscious about the cultural diversity that exists. We hosted our first cultural festival just before COVID-19, and we are planning the next one for 2024. In Namibia, we’ve got 11 different language groups and tribes, and they all have very distinct and unique cultures.”
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If I’m right, the 4Cs were just the beginning… With the introduction of a 5th C, a BIG strategy and mindset reset, and the evolution of the Arid Eden project. What can you tell us about this period of change at Wolwedans?
“2019 was a striking year with Fridays for Future. Climate change was heavily trending in the media. Another topic on the agenda was wealth inequality. Then we have the environmental disaster with the world drowning in plastic. It was pretty clear to most that something needed to change. But how do you make this change? How do you facilitate it? How do you bring it into an organisation like ours?
It was October 2019 and I was at an airport with a 4-hour delay and there were only two books left in the duty-free shop. So, I picked the left one. It was called ‘The Second Curve’ by Charles Handy.
The theory is that a sigmoid curve is a recurring pattern in life and business. Things start slowly and then growth accelerates. The curve peaks hits a plateau, and then begins to decline. We can then either slide down the S curve or initiate a second curve.
Wolwedans had experienced continued growth, and over time we’d become a bit complacent and even a bit lazy. We had started to take the business for granted, we had lost focus, and we also had some competition growing. I soon realised, inspired by this book, that it was time to reinvent ourselves. Everybody in tourism around that time was also jumping on the sustainability bandwagon. I knew if we didn’t change and re-engineer ourselves, we might end up like Nokia or Kodak, you know, history.
We began by refurbishing all our camps, as well as changing the mindset of our teams by investing in workshops led by external consultants. We also altered the focus on the business to the pursuit of happiness rather than the quest for profit, which I was quite worried about because it was hard enough to embed sustainability into our day-to-day thinking. I could imagine people saying, ‘Stephan’s tortured us for 12 years about sustainability, and now it’s the pursuit of happiness?’ I was nervous to introduce this new concept and then COVID happened, and everything stopped.
The timing could really not have been better because it was really like the end of a chapter and then a 12-18 month transition period before we were ready to press go. I feel very fortunate that we had that pause in tourism as it gave us time to figure it all out.
With our 25th Jubilee around the corner, we looked ahead to the next 25 years at Wolwedans. That’s when we decided to introduce a 5th C. The fifth C is ‘Consciousness’.
If you take those five Cs and put them all together in a blender, what comes out there for us is what we call the Matrix 25. You can find it on the webpage under the Arid Eden project.
Wolwedans team members
One of the areas we decided to invest even more into was education. We’d done vocational training for years, but we wanted to take it to the next level and scale. Wolwedans is renowned for its vocational training and helping with the development of young Namibians and we wanted to do even more here.
For the past 12 years, we’ve been supplying our lodges with fresh herbs and salad. Now with this reset, we wanted to think about food miles in a much wider sense. Our aim is that five years from now, everything our guests eat at Wolwedans camps – and hopefully many others – will be fresh from our local Hardap region.
Last but not least, we want to help building more inclusive and equitable tourism economies. Probably one of the most impactful projects we are driving now is ‘RuralRevive – Building a desert-based economy’. It just ticks all the boxes and addresses many global issues, ranging from climate change to wealth inequality, rural exodus/decline, and waste. We are now expanding our impact way beyond Wolwedans, and that is very exciting.”
As you look to the next 25 years at Wolwedans and the exciting Arid Eden project, what excites you most Stephan?
“Over the next few years, I think I’d have to say food security, regenerative agriculture, producing healthier organic foods, and making people – both locals and tourists – more conscious about this
For example, if someone is visiting the Namib desert in February they shouldn’t expect orange juice no matter how much they pay. Even if a client pays top dollar they shouldn’t be able to say to a hotel or lodge, ‘I don’t care where you get the orange from, I demand fresh orange juice.’
Enjoying fresh orange juice in February in the Namib desert means that those oranges have travelled all the way from Israel, Spain, or maybe even Panama. And the same goes for French champagne. We will no longer serve French champagne at Wolwedans because I think it’s absolutely ridiculous to ship beverages from Europe to Southern Africa. That French champagne has this incredible carbon footprint and has clocked up serious food miles.
I think it’s slowly fading out now but, until not so recently, no matter where in the world you went, you could drink Evian water shipped from Europe to every part of the world. I mean, how crazy is that? I think this idea that you can have anything wherever you are in the world is fast becoming unsexy. Most people are completely oblivious to what they consume, where it comes from, and where it ends up, so we will better educate our guests to think more consciously – the 5th C.
We are also looking to change the drinks and juices we serve here. We are trying to entice local farmers to make concentrates here, whether it’s from lemon or prickly pears, and then mix that with safe borehole water, its carbon footprint is tiny compared to the fruit juice that’s produced in Cape Town and trucked all the way to Wolwedans.
I think that tackling these food miles is a beautiful challenge.”
There are 2 questions I ask every one of my guests. The first is which travel experience profoundly moved or inspired you most? Can you share with us where it was?
“It has to be Grootbos in South Africa. It’s luxury sustainable accommodation in a nature reserve close to the Southern tip of Africa. We continue to learn a lot from Grootbos, and vice versa, there’s a healthy bit of competition going on between us which encourages us to continue evolving and doing more good.”
What’s next for Wolwedans?
“Look, right now we are all at a crossroads, globally if we fail to get ourselves on the right trajectory soon there’s not much hope. Today’s extreme events are only a glimpse of what’s to come.
When I read the book ‘The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society’, I soon realised that beyond sustainability was spirituality. I’m not talking about the church or even God. I think that deep down we all sense it, that there’s something out there bigger than us. When you step into the desert it’s easier to appreciate. You just know you’re connecting to something you can’t pinpoint, and if you can’t explain that feeling or put it into numbers it tends to scare people. Perhaps in this future that lies ahead, people will need this idea of ‘spirituality’ even more.”