Almost 10 per cent of Africa’s economy relies on the tourism industry, which was shuttered by Covid-19. But, as travel editor and TV tourism expert Jill Starley-Grainger reports, for the millions employed by the safari industry, there is confidence that the good times – and the tourists – will return.
In a typical year, thousands of tourists visit Africa to spot lions, zebras and elephants – and to lounge on the continent’s white-sand beaches.
It’s a vitally important industry that employs 25 million people directly or indirectly, including a large number in well-paying jobs, such as rangers and guides.
But Africa’s safari industry has been particularly badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with the impact devastating businesses, communities and conservation efforts alike.
Africa as a whole has suffered a 57 per cent loss in international arrivals due to the pandemic, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, and safari business are particularly reliant on an international clientele, most of whom have been unable to travel to Africa since March.
This has led to a significant reduction in customers and the temporary – and potentially permanent – closure of many companies reliant on safari tourism.
A recent survey by SafariBookings.com found that safari tour operators have seen bookings decrease by three quarters or more over the last four months, compared to the same time last year.
And many have received no customers or bookings at all.
The human cost:
Travel operator Aardvark Safaris, which works with lodges throughout Africa, has seen the devastating human impact of this sudden loss of tourists.
‘We support over 1,000 camps and lodges throughout sub-Saharan Africa,’ said co-owner Alice Gully.
‘And they are all looking at a year with limited or no income. Not only does this affect jobs, but it affects the dependants on these employees.
In Kenya, for example, seven million people are employed in tourism - a third of the country’s workforce - and they each have approximately seven dependants.’
In Botswana, Desert & Delta Safaris managed to maintain all of its staff, albeit on reduced incomes, said Andrew Flat, Desert & Delta Safaris’ marketing manager.
‘High-value, low-volume destinations like Botswana have faced incalculable losses. Botswana is roughly the size of France, but with a population of just over two million people, and around 40 per cent of the country consists of protected parks and reserves.’
With so few visitors to such a vast region, even a small dip in numbers can have devastating consequences for communities.
Some safari businesses have managed to fare a little better, such as Go Places Africa DMC.
It arranges safaris in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ethiopia, and has managed to maintain all staff.
'Management and directors took salary cuts to make sure that we were able to pay our staff without any cuts as they rely on their salaries for their livelihood, and some of them are the main bread earners in their families. We also set up internet services for our staff in their homes to ensure regular communication virtually with them as well as with our clients.’
In South Africa, meanwhile, hotels across the country have had virtually no income since March.
Royal Malewane was effectively closed for five months with zero revenue,’ said Ross Bowers, marketing manager of the luxury lodge in South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park.
'The pandemic has been devastating for our industry, for our staff and for their many dependents. Government support for the industry has been extremely limited, but we fought hard to keep everyone employed.
He added: ‘Since we reopened, we have had very limited local business. We need international visitors to return as soon as possible. Recovery for the safari industry will be extremely slow, but we are optimistic that safaris, nature and wildlife will be highly sought after post-Covid experiences.’
Covid-19’s economic impact is significant for conservation, too, with some reporting an increase in poaching activity.
‘With no game drives, there are fewer eyes on the ground to watch out for poachers,’ said Gully of Aardvark Safaris.
This is a real concern throughout the industry, added Luke Bailes, founder and executive chairman of Singita, which has 15 luxury eco-lodges in Rwanda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
‘If ecotourism stops funding the conservation work of non-profit conservation partners, the likelihood of illegal hunting and poaching increases,’ explained the Anglo-Kenyan businessman, whose family have been involved in the Kenyan safari industry since the 1920s.
'Laid-off workers could turn to poaching to make ends meet, and if anti-poaching efforts are not maintained, traffickers have easier access to the animals and will simply stockpile until they can transport to their end markets.’
Some governments have taken heed of the impact on their wildlife and landscapes, and have put plans in place to try to increase protection in some areas.
In South Africa, the government, conservation organisations and local communities recently announced a plan to create protection areas to safeguard rhinos from poachers.
But the funds available for this are limited, and until international visitors return in significant numbers, it’s likely that both the landscapes and the animals that conservation projects help will suffer.
While some African countries have recently started allowing international visitors, more openings are planned in the coming months.
This has helped a little for 2020, but since much of Europe and North America – the two major markets for Africa’s wildlife experiences – are still in various forms of lockdown, most safari businesses are pinning their hopes on 2021.
Roar Africa, a luxury specialist operating in 13 countries in southern and eastern Africa, has seen a massive profit hit this year, but does have some bookings for next year.
‘We had over 300 trips booked for 2020, and have had to move 80 per cent of them,’ said Deborah Calmeyer, Roar Africa’s CEO and founder.
‘With the recent reopening of Kenya and Rwanda, we have seen more enquiries for travel to these destinations, but we have a long way to go to get to pre-Covid levels of tourism.’
‘We have seen a marked increase in enquiries since restrictions began to lift,’ noted Toby Pheasant, founder of Bonamy Travel, which operates in 15 countries in Africa.
‘There has been an increase of 320 per cent [in enquiries]. But while we would normally expect to convert between 60 and 70 per cent of these, [the number that result in sales] is significantly lower than we would expect, at around 10 per cent.’
It seems many customers are dreaming and planning, but still worried about the pandemic and travel restrictions, so less inclined to make a booking.
But some of the people who missed out on their 2020 safari trip are securing bookings early for next year.
African Bush Camps, which runs 15 luxury camps in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, has recently seen a noticeable increase in reservations, particularly for 2021, said its CEO and founder, Beks Ndlovu.
‘Bookings were up 400 per cent in mid-August for 2021 in comparison to 2019 bookings.’
This increase is no doubt helped by the company’s new policy of a 100 per cent refundable deposit – a clever strategy to ensure guests know they won’t be out of pocket if the crisis affects their travel plans.
South African tour operator Unearth Experience has seen a similar trend in forward bookings for its safari trips, which it arranges to destinations throughout Africa.
‘The majority of our clientele impacted by Covid-19 restrictions have opted to postpone their travel plans versus cancelling their trips.
This has allowed us to have a strong forward book for 2021,’ said Rory James Loader, managing director.
Nobody knows how the pandemic will play out, but many safari businesses are doing their best to prepare, and there are hope that many will be able to adapt to ensure the future of the industry.
‘Africa is tough, its people and wildlife are resilient,’ opined Flatt of Desert & Delta Safaris.
‘The silver lining is that we are still here, ready and waiting to welcome guests back to our lodges, and ready to prove that, post-pandemic, nothing beats the social distancing a Botswana safari offers.’