Train at Sossusvlei off the table

Project fails environmental impact assessment
Katharina Moser
A proposal to build a train as the only access for tourists to Sossusvlei created consternation in March, with many fearing that the natural wonder would be destroyed.
Now Green Earth Environmental Consultants, which completed the environmental impact assessment, says the project will not go ahead because it is not financially or technically feasible and will have a negative impact on the surrounding area. The same applies to the planned tethered hot air balloon, for which another site is being sought, she said.
In March, environment minister Pohamba Shifeta granted Sky Eye Tours & Hospitality the concession rights for the project, on the condition that the Monuments Council does not object, that the state-run rest camp operator NWR be engaged and that the company have an environmental clearance certificate (ECC).
However, this same environmental impact assessment has now revealed that the project could prove harmful to the environment in many ways.
According to documents, “it will change the character of the place - that's the biggest concern. It is now a place of untouched natural beauty. This is one of the great attractions and a unique selling point for visitors. Namibia is one of the few countries in the world that still has sites untouched by modern development, and at the same time they are quite easily accessible,” the consultants said.
“Namibia sells itself to tourists who are attracted to the character of Namibia's wilderness and unspoiled beauty. That has become very rare in the world, and if Sossusvlei becomes another ‘Disneyland’, Namibia will lose an important unique selling point.”
In addition, he said, the area needs to be protected as a UNESCO natural heritage site. It could not be proven that the damage caused by the tracks of the cars was greater than that caused by the train. The possible need to build a railway line for the train could destroy the beauty of the entire preceding Tsauchab Valley.
Furthermore, there will be increased litter and noise pollution, while the long and costly construction phase could erode the soil and scare away game.
In addition, the consultants doubt the financial viability of the project: There are no precautionary measures in case the investors lose interest or go bankrupt. Moreover, the necessary investment would be enormous.
The consultants are also worried about the quality of tourism and the situation of other surrounding operators. After the pandemic, tourists would no longer be interested in being crammed into wagons in groups. Furthermore, Sky Eye Tours & Hospitality were given a monopoly over the area: “This rings several alarm bells. It will become more expensive for Namibians to visit their own natural heritage sites. What happens in the event of a train system breakdown? And the monopolisation of access to such an important site in a national park by a private company that was not selected in an open bidding process raises questions.”
The consultants added that the operator may not have enough experience in tourism and train operations, NWR may lose income, and communication with the Ministry of Environment has been poor.
The train project thus seems to be off the table - both surrounding tourism operators and fans of nature untouched by humans as much as possible should now breathe a sigh of relief.