• Open arms

    As the tourism industry attempts to regain momentum, new approaches are required to welcome visitors

    Open arms

    There are two types of aspirant globetrotters: those who have been to Africa and want to go back; and those who haven’t but want to. Tour operators and bloggers sometimes illustrate this with a much-attributed quote: ‘The only man I envy is the man who has not yet been to Africa – for he has so much to look forward to.’

    Africa continues to fascinate and insinuate itself under the skin for a diverse range of reasons, ranging from the mesmerising, open expanses and spectacular geography to the magnificent flora and, of course, the abundant fauna. Tourists from around the globe come to experience the big five in national parks such as Etosha in Namibia, Kruger in South Africa and Chobe in Botswana; see crocodile and hippo in Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe; go on a gorilla trek in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC; or witness the great wildebeest migration from Tanzania’s Serengeti to Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Pre-COVID-19, Africa’s wildlife-based tourism industry generated US$29 billion a year and employed 3.6 million people, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

    ‘When we talk wildlife safaris, Africa is the epicentre, where it all begins, just because of the sheer number of ultra-desirable animals you can see in one stop,’ travel journalist Larry Olmsted writes in Forbes magazine. ‘There’s no such thing as a bad safari – it goes from good to better to great to world-class, and you should do it as well as your budget and schedule allows. But most of all, just do it.’

    Sadly, the pandemic is making this difficult, at times impossible, for long-haul tourists. Even if they are prepared to travel to Africa during COVID-19, their plans are hampered by travel bans, compulsory quarantines and cancelled flight routes. African operators are ready to welcome back their foreign guests with open arms, yet lockdown and travel restrictions in their key source markets (including the UK, Germany and the US) still prevent such leisure travel.

    On top of this are health-related issues such as the slow vaccine roll-out in many countries and fear of virus mutations. The continent’s inbound tourism industry has recently lost the profitable summer high season (which, according to the Tourism Business Council of South Africa, runs from September to March and represents 60% of the annual tourism business in South Africa).

    While the majority of wildlife and nature-based travel stakeholders switched to survival mode, they are building up resilience, trying to re-imagine their business for the post-COVID future. However, according to tourism-resilience expert Sarah Habsburg, ‘there is no easy way to say this, but some businesses will have to close – not because they lack inspiration and strength, but because too many months have passed without income, and the costs and the debt are now too high’. To increase the odds of survival, she advises African tourism businesses to collaborate, truly understand their target clients and watch the market. ‘Stay on top of predicted travel trends that will soon emerge, such as multi-generational trips, parent-only getaways, exclusive-use properties or long-stay discounts,’ she says.

    Habsburg explains that ‘the first wave of recovery-period travellers, whether domestic or international, is looking for destinations where every element – from the accommodation providers to airport transfer services, to restaurants and excursion agencies – is united in its message that their destination is safe. The industry is now selling peace of mind, not individual services’. In the absence of foreign tourists – who bring in the big bucks and are the traditional target market for high-end safaris – the first plan of action was to woo local visitors as well as regional tourists from neighbouring countries.

    The trend towards a more inclusive, local tourism focus (combined with the socio-economic upliftment of communities living adjacent to the protected areas) has been going on for a while and is now being accelerated as a result of COVID. ‘We continue to work with various partners, which include tour operators, booking agents and other partners in the value chain,’ says Rey Thakhuli, acting head of communications at South African National Parks (SANParks).

    ‘We work on an adjusted strategy as government amends the regulations. Although the majority of our customers in most of our parks are local, we do have a need for international visitors. But with international arrivals currently not in place we continue to try attract more local visitors and tourists.’ It was, therefore, important to still go ahead with the South African National Parks Week, an annual event to entice locals into parks by waiving the entry fees. Due to COVID restrictions, the sponsored event was held two months later than usual, in November.

    SANParks acknowledged that ‘the survival of the national-parks system and our natural and cultural heritage lies in the people of South Africa’ – 40 000 of whom took advantage of the free entry in 2020. In February 2021, SANParks announced that a record number of visitors in a single weekend – 487 overnight guests and 6 628 day visitors – had come from all over the country to see Augrabies Falls, in the Northern Cape.

    To put this into context, Thakhuli explains that ‘the reality is that South Africans are coming through to visit, even though the numbers have not reached the desired amounts. We are seeing an interest in visitors wanting to experience events such as the Augrabies Falls, but we have to ensure that numbers are limited as per the COVID-19 protocols’.

    The crisis has underlined the importance of nature-based and wildlife tourism as drivers of local economic development. ‘Ironically, it took the closure of many protected areas, like the Kruger National Park in South Africa and the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, to affirm their fundamental role in people’s lives and livelihoods,’ says Justin Smith, head of business development at WWF South Africa. The NGO partnered with SANParks in the ‘You are nature – support it’ campaign, raising more than ZAR400 000 for conservation support during the pandemic.

    ‘In addition, SANParks asked our Khetha programme [against illegal wildlife trade] to facilitate a platform that connected all landscape partners to share resources and information in responding to COVID-19 along the western boundary of the Kruger National Park,’ says Smith. He adds that a concern raised was that the COVID-related loss of income could lead desperate communities to resort to illegal harvesting and trafficking of wildlife products such as ivory and rhino horn. ‘Anecdotal evidence suggests an increase in bushmeat snaring, which not only affects the targeted species, such as antelope, but also large mammals such as elephants and rhinos.’

    The pandemic has highlighted the crucial role of nature-based and wildlife tourism in local economic development

    In Tanzania, the non-profit African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) is using sniffer dogs in a COVID response to mitigate such wildlife crimes in the Serengeti National Park. The organisation has praised the many tourism operators in East Africa that continue to pay salaries and uplift communities despite their own income drying up during the travel bans.

    The pandemic has changed travellers’ priorities, making them more cautious of infection risk and, at the same time, more appreciative of open spaces and nature. ‘Previously, guests wanted the exclusivity of private travel. Now they may see it as a necessity,’ says safari brand &Beyond, which offers guests a ‘fully customisable’ private-jet experience to limit their exposure at airports. The company owns lodges and camps in Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zanzibar and Zimbabwe, and has started a ‘virtual care package’ for potential guests while international travel is on hold. The idea is to create a personal connection through the brand’s own safari TV channel, digimag, podcast and a feature that allows online users to book interactions with guides.

    Singita, whose luxury eco-lodge portfolio includes Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, says the demand for its exclusive-use private villas has risen noticeably during the pandemic. Lindy Rousseau, chief marketing officer at Singita, sums up the unique selling points for post-COVID wildlife travel. ‘We believe that Africa has a distinct advantage, given our relatively low tourism numbers – we are not an over-touristed destination; our fresh air; closeness to nature; and open spaces that naturally lend themselves to social distancing and privacy,’ she says. ‘We have weak currencies, so value-for-money is right up there. We should trade off these advantages to bring tourism back to Africa as soon as possible.’

    By Silke Colquhoun
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images