Safari operator Craig Beal on worthwhile hassles: Travel in the time of Covid

Craig Beal owns the safari operator Travel Beyond.

On July 2, Kenya announced that its borders would open to Americans effective Aug. 1. When I read that, I began planning my first trip to Africa since last November.

In a typical year my company, Travel Beyond, sends around 2,000 people on safaris in Africa. Needless to say, this is not a typical year. The pandemic has been devastating to tourism on a global level, and nobody is feeling it more than the safari economy. My staff, my family and my partners in Africa have all been impacted greatly by the cessation of international travel.

My goal in going as soon as it was possible was to gain firsthand intelligence that I could share not only with my team and our customers but industrywide. I hoped that, upon my return, I would feel confident that travel to Africa is not only possible but also still immensely rewarding.

I'll acknowledge that there were challenges, many due to being in the first wave of travelers to arrive. Like "opening day" for theatrical performances or restaurants, the country had some issues to work through.

My plan was to go with my friend and colleague Chris Liebenberg. I designed the trip and purchased a Delta/SkyTeam ticket, flying from Minneapolis to Atlanta to London to Nairobi.

Next, I set my sights on health and administrative requirements. On July 2, Kenya stated that a negative Covid-19 PCR test was required to enter but did not state any timing regarding the results and travel. I went to my healthcare provider in Minnesota and used the negative result to obtain my visa from Kenya's embassy in Washington expedited with Dukes Visa Service.

Subsequently, on July 27, Kenya announced that Americans needed a negative result within 96 hours of departure, so I had to get another test, which required my doctor's authorization. I was tested on July 30 with results back on Aug. 3, two days after my planned departure date.

To complicate things further, on the morning of July 31 I awoke to a torrent of emails from partners in Kenya telling me that Kenya was banning Americans from entering beginning on Aug. 1. Two hours later, the Kenyan government updated their policy to state that only Texans, Californians and Floridians were banned. For the moment, I was "in" and Chris, a resident of California, was "out."

By noon on July 31, I had a new plan in place. Instead of leaving Aug. 1, I would depart for Kenya on my own on Aug. 3 and fly to Arusha, Tanzania, on Aug. 9 to meet Chris. Tanzania has been open to Americans since July 1 with no medical requirements. Delta changed both of our tickets with only a small increase in cost.

Later in the day, Tanzania announced a ban on all flights from Kenya and further stated that anyone coming from Kenya by other means of transport needed a negative Covid test 96 hours prior to arrival. I canceled that portion of my flight arrangements, arranged a road transfer from Nairobi to Arusha for Aug. 9 and, since I was going to be in Kenya for the full 96 hours before arriving in Tanzania, planned a third Covid test at the African Medical and Research Foundation facility in Nairobi.

Craig Beal meets some of the residents of Nairobi’s Giraffe Manor.
Craig Beal meets some of the residents of Nairobi’s Giraffe Manor.

Despite the planning headaches, from that point on the trip went incredibly smoothly. I had no problems on international flights or entering Kenya or Tanzania, and the safari was an invigorating breath of fresh air during this pandemic.

My company has sent clients to Kenya and Tanzania since my return, and the process has been much smoother. But as additional countries reopen, travel advisors will be faced with similar challenges to address, and I offer the following advice:

Both advisors and clients need to be prepared for the possibility of changing guidelines and the need for quick thinking. Contingency plans should be discussed with clients in a pretrip call. Direct, honest communication is key. I have always had a Plan B (and sometimes C) in my back pocket should a logistical problem arise, but now is not the time to keep these plans out of view from clients. Advisors have never been in control of the airlines, weather or governmental regulations, and there has never been a greater need for transparency, flexibility and creativity. In short, that is the recipe for success.

Strong relationships and constant communication with ground operators in each country are crucial. When Kenya banned some Americans prior to my departure, my partners abroad immediately notified me and helped rearrange my itinerary in less than eight hours. I lean more heavily than ever on our partners in Africa now, as on-the-ground contacts have crucial information not only about potential roadblocks but also solutions.

For the foreseeable future, Covid testing within a short time frame is going to be a challenge. Based on my experience and feedback from others, I would now recommend Covid Consultants due to the simplicity of their testing process and their customer service.

Finally, a comprehensive travel protection plan is a must for international travel in a world challenged by Covid-19. With uncertainty comes risk, and when making a big investment in an international trip, mitigating risk with a comprehensive coverage option is crucial.

Many communities and conservation efforts in Africa are sustained by tourism dollars. This was certainly an incentive to blaze a trail back. That's true elsewhere, as well, and as more countries begin to open their borders, our industry is offered an incredible opportunity to capitalize on pent-up travel demand and assert ourselves as trusted, knowledgeable advisors. Strong relationships, open communication and sharing knowledge within our industry are just a few of the ways we'll not only survive but prove our worth to our clients moving forward.

By the way, I had an incredible experience while in Kenya and Tanzania: epic animal viewing, the most peaceful sleep I've had in recent memory and absolutely stunning views; watching the great migration with a sense of privacy, with no vehicles in the background of my photos; a wonderful room at short notice in Giraffe Manor, typically sold out two years in advance; listening to the sounds of the Mara River -- and the animals drawn to it --from my tent in Serian Nkorombo, in the heart of Masai Mara Reserve.

I've returned from Africa with great optimism that our best days are ahead of us. I look forward to rising to the challenge along with you.

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