Luxury travel to poor destinations can spur emotional dissonance. I remember wondering, when the Sheraton in Addis Ababa first opened, how a visitor could, fresh from a drive through the substantial slums of Ethiopia's capital, fully enjoy the property's French restaurant and choreographed fountain displays.
And, truth be told, you don't have to be living the luxe life to recognize a sizable wealth gap between yourself and local residents in much of Africa. When I was on a three-month overland camping trip through the continent, the pup tent I slept in was hardly ostentatious, but I nonetheless was keenly aware that, overall, my circumstances were more fortunate than those of the residents.
Lately, it seems that luxury options for wealthy travelers in Africa are reflecting significant upward "amenity creep," which would suggest travelers there aren't feeling particularly self-conscious about staying in style in an underdeveloped country.
I don't think it's because they are increasingly less sensitive to their social surroundings.
In fact, after listening to members of Safari Pros, a 31-member organization of upscale tour operators, retailers and wholetailers, I think that, ironically, it's a result of being more aware and sensitive that, in a sense, eases discomfort.
I wasn't familiar with Safari Pros until I was asked to co-moderate, with Robb Report editorial director Bruce Wallin, a discussion among its members on the topics of luxury and sustainability.
I found Safari Pros to be an unusual, and refreshing, upscale travel association. I heard none of the tedious and boastful one-luxmanship that can characterize meetings among those who sell or market upscale products. And words like "authenticity" and "passion" were expressed within a context that reflected a conviction I almost forgot underpinned those terms before they devolved into near-meaningless industry jargon.
People don't travel to Africa for a private plunge pool, high thread counts or the length and quality of a wine list, Safari Pros members said. That's secondary, by far, to experience. "Wildlife trumps product," the group's chairman, Sunit Sanghrajka, said.
But the rise of luxury elements in safaris exactly parallels expressions of sustainability: wildlife preservation, environmental protection, cultural sensitivity and support for local communities.
And it is an awareness that they might be helping, not harming, the destination that allows visitors to enjoy some measures of pampering.
Interestingly, few travelers, luxury or not, specifically seek out sustainability in their travels. "Maybe one customer a year asks about conservation," said Travel Beyond's Craig Beal.
But as long as clients travel in the embrace of companies that use suppliers that consciously employ the best practices regarding cultural and environmental sustainability; are committed to conservation; and, importantly, educate visitors about what they're doing, guests become more deeply and comfortably connected to the destination.
The linkage of sustainability to luxury travel works especially well for this group, I believe, because of its members' genuine belief in the necessity of conservation measures. They repeatedly spoke of the urgent need to preserve wildlife. While that's on one hand obviously in their commercial self-interest, their commitment to sustainability seemed personal. They spoke of extensive greenwashing in Africa and the need to vet preferred suppliers carefully.
"We all work for the four Cs: commerce, conservation, community and culture," Wilderness Safaris' Keith Vincent said.
The commerce part is crucial. While poor tourism practices can put sensitive areas under stress, intelligently planned tourism supports and funds conservation.
And at the end of the day, upscale clients want both authentic African experiences and some amenities. Mark Holdsworth of Nomad said even his highest-end clients are "looking for raw experience" balanced with comfort.
"You can have something basic and rustic one night, but do they want that every night? No way," Russel Binks of Tswalu Kalahari said. "They want air conditioning and hot water. They want to take advantage of their suite."
And although the discussion centered mostly around luxury travel, it was acknowledged that the same principles apply down-market. Mango Safaris' Teresa Sullivan said she felt "middle-class trips are, in some ways, most rewarding" to set up.
"A school teacher saves up her entire life for a trip to Africa, and you get to facilitate that experience," she said. "They come back from their trip, and you're with them on the phone for an hour."
Experience, perhaps more than luxury touches, must be emphasized, said Mary Jean Tully of Tully Luxury Travel. "Africa is terrific for families," she said. "We all talk about linens and luxury, but most important are the guides. Kids fall in love with guides."
And Mindy Roberts of Time & Tide noted that the greatest luxury that Africa affords for even for the wealthiest travelers is unrelated to amenities or indulgences. What they're looking for is "time and space."
I believe the basic patterns Safari Pros is observing apply outside Africa as well. The balance between experience and product must always be custom-calibrated for each traveler. But now a third element, sustainability, plays an increasingly important role, primarily in protecting a destination, but also in enabling a traveler to connect to it. Pricey amenities offer physical comfort; sustainable practices comfort the psyche.