Robyn von Geusau, Op-Ed, The Daily Maverick | June 29, 2020
Private safari companies in Africa are eager to get foreign tourists back in their game-drive vehicles. But how different will the experience – and the travellers – be when they return?
The safari industry, both locally and north of our borders, is gearing up for a “same, but different” post-Covid-19 lockdown season.
The trade which, like many others, has suffered a bloody nose, with its lifeblood – tourists – being cut off, is itching to get back on the tracks and trails.
“We need to get business flowing back into Africa,” says Suzanne Bayly-Coupe, owner of Classic Portfolio, a marketing company for numerous privately-owned lodges and camps on the continent. Based in Franschhoek, outside Cape Town, it sits in the heartland of one of the most popular tourist destinations in Africa. “It’s about being positive and looking at ways of creating a new landscape.”
It is unclear when the tourist-dependent industry will be able to fully fling open its doors and tent flaps to the public, but the optimistic hope is for a phased reopening of international inbound tourism from 1 September 2020, based on stringent safety and health protocols.
“The summer high season runs from September to March and represents 60% of the annual business for tourism. The nature of international inbound tourism is such that we have long lead times between booking and travel,” says Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa, CEO of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA), which believes a revival plan is needed to ensure South Africa’s status as a top tourism destination.
The TBCSA made representations to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Tourism to this effect earlier in June 2020. In late June, the TBCSA said that more than R68-billion in tourism spend has been lost since South Africa’s national lockdown began at the end of March 2020. Tourism in South Africa supports 1.5 million jobs and contributes 8.6% to the GDP.
And the United Nations World Tourism Organisation added its weight to the push to open borders globally for tourism, saying this billion-dollar industry shutdown was putting 100 to 120 million jobs at risk. “As the world faces the devastating consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the tourism sector is among those being affected most severely. Travel is down, fear is up, and the future is uncertain,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a recent video message.
Don Scott, owner of Tanda Tula, a luxury tented camp in South Africa’s Timbavati region, believes a sense of urgency by the government is imperative in terms of the reopening of tourism. He sees firsthand the impact on rural communities which live alongside reserves.
“The tourism sector offers a massive opportunity for a broad range of employment. We really need to get things moving. This is about getting international borders open to get hard currencies into our country because that is a massive part of our tourism economy,” said Scott.
This week, he called out the insurance industry for “letting us down in our hour of need”. This was in response to a statement by William and Belinda van der Riet, owners of the 81-year-old Cathedral Peak Hotel in the Drakensberg, which is facing closure and the loss of 200 jobs. They state their insurers are resisting liability, “stating that our losses are not as a result of Covid-19, but due to a government-enforced lockdown”.
In a Facebook post at the weekend, Scott said: “The tourism industry is being callously dealt with as the insurers extend the timeline to honouring our claims through litigation. This will only lead to many businesses bleeding out before the conclusion of any legal process. The insurers know this and they know that business closures will lessen the number of claims they have to settle. A completely heartless approach at a time when tourism is on its knees.” He called for pressure to be put on the insurance industry to find its “moral compass”.
Many lodges and reserves, which rely hugely on foreign currency to keep them and the surrounding communities’ heads above water, have not been lax during lockdown. Many have used this downtime to test Covid-19 protocols for when lockdown is lifted. They are also doing guest-intrusive renovations, vital fauna and flora research, focusing on projects that uplift communities, and ensuring that anti-poaching patrols continue.
Murray Collins of Machaba Safaris, which operates in Botswana and Zimbabwe, has like many other camp and lodge owners, been actively involved in food drops to hungry villagers in surrounding areas. “People are hungry. People are starving in Africa because of this [Covid-19 lockdown].” He has urged trade partners, who ask what they can do while unable to send tourists to Africa, to “get involved, donate food parcels. We can be a conduit to something good. If you want to help that’s a small thing, but it’s a very worthwhile thing.”
A challenge faced by much of the industry across Africa is how the absence of feet on the ground has impacted poaching. Fabia Bausch of Chem Chem, a wildlife concession in Tanzania that is starting a phased reopening from July 2020 – the country recently announced it is open for business – said during a recent webinar on the safari industry hosted by Bayley-Coupe that the poaching of bushmeat had increased in national parks in recent months. “There was no trophy poaching, but there were lots of giraffes and zebras killed. And that’s definitely from the lack of just being present on the ground.”
Scott says that during the “hard” Level 5 lockdown with the closure of borders, restriction of movement of people and curfews, the number of incursions into his reserve did not go up. “If anything, it went down – even the organised crime syndicates were restricted from being able to move freely and also from being able to effectively transport their product, but this is only something one can clearly unpack in hindsight,” he said.
“The big concern now is where the tourism sector is being held in a state of lockdown and unable to earn revenue, staff are on long term unpaid leave and companies are claiming UIF and paying this over to staff. At some point, many of the safari companies will no longer be able to survive and will have to permanently retrench staff. When this happens, and the income streams dry up, it is self-evident that an increase in poaching for food will follow. With regards to the ‘organised crime’ networks associated with poaching of rhino and elephant, this will certainly ramp back up to normal levels as soon as the restriction of movement and curfews become less severe under the lockdown levels.”
And while people have been unable to physically travel, there has been a move to “couch” safaris – using social media platforms to view live webcams and even live game drives during lockdown. An example of this is the hugely popular live daily safaris hosted on WildEarth, a live wildlife broadcaster, which has built a passionate community of nature lovers across the globe. Bespoke travel company andBeyond partnered with them to bring the southern African experience to TV screens around the world.
“A group of guides volunteered to remain on our reserves during this time to ensure our wildlife monitoring continues as their presence in the field serves an important security function,” said Valeri Mouton, PR manager of andBeyond. “We are definitely seeing a reignited interest in exploring and interpreting nature, and looking for more meaningful and purposeful travel experiences.”
A conundrum facing the tourism industry is physically getting people in once countries open their borders.
“There is a big gap between countries saying they are opening their doors and when we will have airlift coming in from other countries,” says Bayly-Coupe. “Until we have those two lined up, that’s a really big challenge. Most of it depends on what air access there is and how travellers will get from whatever country they are coming from back into Africa.” She does, however, also see this challenge as a possible opportunity: “Once South Africa opens, it creates a big springboard for other destinations like Zimbabwe and Botswana.”
To stimulate regional travel, Classic Portfolio is implementing African residents’ “reignite” rates with up to 60% off the normal selling price.
And while the inflow from outside is stagnant, some owners are testing their product and protocols on their local market.
Mikey Carr-Hartley of the Safari Collection in Kenya opened the legendary Giraffe Manor this month to the local Nairobi market after months of lockdown. He will use the opportunity to test drive how to present Covid-19 safety protocols to guests and how to ensure physical distancing during dining and game drives. He, together with other industry players, firmly believes tourists should – and will – want a different kind of experience to that of pre-Covid-19.
He says travel to wilderness areas in Africa will now be a more connected experience, about “getting the back story”. “Speak to the owners, speak to the people. Get the guides to give you their perspective, rather than coming in and moving through, and ticking it off because your neighbour did it. Get to the roots of the whole thing.”
Bausch, who has long championed the “slow safari” experience, believes a positive aspect of Covid-19 will be the impact on the traveller’s psyche: “People might have become more mindful. While being stuck at home, they realised that breathing a bit slower doesn’t need to be boring… And that being in nature is very healing after what we’ve been through.
“Also, once you have got through the airports and are somewhere in the bush, you can actually avoid being in touch with other people.”
There is a strong move towards offering the future traveller more connected experiences while on safari, such as notching rhino, encountering big game on foot or interacting with local community projects. Precautions are, however, paramount with community and cultural interactions, and certain close contact initiatives may be suspended for a while.
“We are talking about life-changing experiences, ethical involvement,” says Angus Sholto-Douglas, managing director of the 22,000ha Kwandwe Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape. “People in Africa really need tourism – it creates incredible ripples through communities around it. We talk about this wildlife economy in South Africa. I wish the politicians could see the value of tourism in Africa.