Invited Essay: Ecotourism: A Big, Interdisciplinary Idea
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Invited Essay: Ecotourism
A Big, Interdisciplinary Idea

As a young millennial in the 1990s, the messaging I absorbed from media set up a pretty clear divide between environmentalism and big business. The villains in Captain Planet were dumping toxic waste to save money. The clear-cutters in Fern Gully were harvesting rain-forest trees to make a profit. It's a classic trope replayed again and again.

But far away from these images (like 16 hours via plane) is a community where being green isn't about being a "hippie" and making good business decisions isn't about "selling out." It's a place where environmental responsibility is working with economic growth, not against. In the country of Namibia, near the southern tip of Africa, we in the Great Plains can learn from a growing industry that combines environmental conservation with a burgeoning economic future for the people living on the land. Namibia is an example of a type of interdisciplinary teamwork that crosses aisles and accomplishes goals.

Why the Center for Great Plains Studies Is Working in Namibia

A country that gained independence in 1990, Namibia sports impressive wildlife, rolling grasslands, towering sand dunes, and wide-open spaces. Early on in the country's development after apartheid, environmentalists at traditional NGOs realized that to make conservation work in the country, they needed to take both the economy and the landscape into consideration. People depend on the land to make a living.

The land there is mostly privately owned (as in the Great Plains). The grasslands are used to support cattle (as in the Great Plains) and are home to large ungulates. (Are you seeing a pattern?) Namibians have developed several different models of conservation that involve private ranchers, conservation agencies, tribal communities, and local businesses. With so many similarities, it's easy to see how these models might apply to the Great Plains. The Center for Great Plains Studies defines ecotourism as travel that deepens one's engagement with nature, conserves the environment, and improves the well-being of local communities. Travel to Namibia hits all these criteria in varied and impactful ways.

But wait, you say, we don't have elephants or lions in the Great Plains. While on my recent trip to Namibia, I asked fellow travelers (mostly from Europe) if they would ever want to see the Plains. My admittedly small sample size was overwhelmingly positive. They wanted to see bison. They wanted to see birds.

They also wanted stories. I met Chris and Joy, Scotland residents, at the trailhead of a two-day hike into the wilderness. I'm 30, so when I saw this couple roll up, white-haired and bespectacled, I assumed with great relief that I wouldn't be the slowest hiker in the bunch. But the minute they broke out their well-worn hiking poles and started out on the trail, I knew I was so, so wrong. They were seasoned hikers who had been road tripping across Namibia for more than three weeks. Both loved the idea of the Great American Roadtrip. They wanted to follow Lewis and Clark's trail up the Missouri. Chris was enamored with seeing real cowboys. They wanted to [End Page 15] see the past, present, and future of Native Americans in the Great Plains. Culture, landscape, and history were all of interest to the pair.

Figure 1. Great Plains graduate fellows Rebekka Schlichting (journalism, left) and Daniel Clausen (English, right) accompany Katie Nieland (middle), assistant director of the Center for Great Plains Studies, to Namibia in southern Africa. These sand dunes are part of the Namib Desert, a coastal desert that runs along the country's western edge. Photo by Katie Nieland.
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Figure 1.

Great Plains graduate fellows Rebekka Schlichting (journalism, left) and Daniel Clausen (English, right) accompany Katie Nieland (middle), assistant director of the Center for Great Plains Studies, to Namibia in southern Africa. These sand dunes are part of the Namib Desert, a coastal desert that runs along the country's western edge. Photo by Katie Nieland.

Figure 2. Map of Namibia. The group visited Sorris Sorris and NamibRand Nature Reserve. Map created by Katie Nieland.
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Figure 2.

Map of Namibia. The group visited Sorris Sorris and NamibRand Nature Reserve. Map created by Katie Nieland.

Another interesting feature these tourists wanted to experience is something else we have in common with Namibia—wide-open space. In Europe, one woman from Switzerland told me, open space, where you're truly alone, can be rare. Namibia is about the combined size of the...