Insight Africa Middle East Insight WiFi among the wildebeest? Why not? By Dorine Reinstein / February 24, 2017 Share 1 -- WiFi and authenticity? It seems that U.S. travelers are keen to have both when in Africa, leaving game lodges and tour operators to play a delicate balancing game."There's an expectation that WiFi will be readily available somewhere in the lodge, so clients don't even ask," said Craig Smith, managing director at New Frontiers Tours. He added that travelers are often more relaxed if they have the chance to bounce into emails once or twice a day and know that all is under control in the office."The trend is definitely that guests want both," said Sean Clark, director of sales, marketing and touring at Belmond Safaris. "They want to immerse themselves in the culture and authenticity of the destination; however, they still want to have a connection to the outside world as not only a safety net but also to splash about their experiences on social media."According to Clark, the trend over the years was that guests would immerse themselves solely in the destination without a care for being connected to the outside world. However, nowadays, this trend has morphed into guests wanting the best of both worlds.Some people are still keen to completely disconnect and travel to very remote locations, but this has become a rare occurrence, said Henk Graaff, managing director at SW Africa. "People sometimes choose to include a few days where they are completely cut off from WiFi to embark on a walking safari, but they don't want to be isolated from the world for the entire duration of their trip."WiFi is a double-edged sword for safari lodges, Graaff explained. On the one hand, the wireless access takes away some of the authenticity of the experience; on the other hand, WiFi has become a non-negotiable requirement for travelers as well as a powerful marketing tool for lodges.Said Graaff: "Part of the appeal of a game experience is to sit next to the fire at night and interact with the other guests about the experiences of the day. With access to WiFi, most people are concentrated on their phone.""I think the most important element of safaris are personal interactions on game drives and around the campfire back at the camp or lodge. By providing Internet access, it increases the temptation to retreat to your electronic bubble," said Kili McGowan, Safari Pros Member.On the other hand, Graaff explained that a lot of game lodges are very keen to have WiFi because of the value of word-of-mouth communicated through social media. "People stand on the deck of the game lodge and Skype with someone at home, showing them the scenery."Kota Tabuchi, managing director at Africa Travel Beyond, explained that most first-time safari-goers or high-level executives/high-net-worth clients tend to request connectivity throughout their trip, whereas repeat safari-goers often request a more purist experience. "It's an impossible balance to strike, but I find that not having WiFi can be a deal-breaker for certain clients, whereas having WiFi in camp rarely qualifies as a deal-breaker for those who are seeking a more authentic experience."The secret is to find that delicate balance between connected and disconnected. "Devices on a game drive are a definite no-no," said Smith, adding that WiFi can be offered in the rooms. "People can connect as they want in the privacy of their room without subjecting other guests to a WiFi huddle of iPads and iPhones."The way game lodges manage the access to WiFi goes a long way toward ensuring guests have an intimate and authentic experience while also catering to their evolving needs, agreed Clark. "A property needs to draw guests out from their daily routines as much as possible and allow them to explore a world that they are unfamiliar with."However, Clark added it is also important to embrace the needs of guests rather than let it become a frustration."It is like longing for your favorite chocolate bar — if you have access to it whenever you want, you would likely only eat one every so often. But if you don't have access to it, then it becomes this monster that festers on your mind and you can't stop craving it!" he said. "It is the properties' responsibility to draw guests into their world of exploration and discovery, where one can become disconnected from being connected."Jim Holden, president of Jim Holden Safaris, agreed, saying it's only when travelers are on safari that they realize they don't need WiFi. He said: "After a few days of unwinding on safari, in the company of a good guide, clients are no longer so attached to their mobile Internet devices as they were when they arrived on safari."Holden said WiFi doesn't necessarily detract from an "authentic" experience. He explained that clients' need to stay up to date with mail and news through WiFi today is not that different from the safaris of old where mail and newspapers were delivered to the lodges on a regular basis alongside fresh produce. "Clients would then catch up with news of the world outside and continue with their safari. Same with the Internet: Connecting discreetly and infrequently gives clients peace of mind that they can be in touch with the world while at the same time be experiencing an authentic safari," he said.One company that has concentrated heavily on finding the right balance between connect and disconnect is Wilderness Safaris. Simon Stobbs, the company's business unit manager for North America, explained that the idea of disconnecting to reconnect has always been a part of Wilderness Safaris' promise to its guests, offering them space, intact ecosystems and the opportunity to connect with nature and oneself.Said Stobbs: "With more and more pressure being placed on tour operators to offer free WiFi, even in some of the world's most remote wilderness areas, it has never been more prevalent for sustainable and authentic ecotourism companies such as Wilderness Safaris to take a firm stand on the matter."The company launched the Disconnect to Reconnect campaign in 2015, stating very clearly which Wilderness Safaris camps will remain WiFi-free (mostly those situated nowhere near to a cellphone signal) and why. The campaign aims to educate trade partners and guests about which camps are WiFi-free as opposed to those that offer free WiFi, empowering them to choose the camps best suited to their needs.