Despite new Covid variants, safari operators insist it'll soon be 'game on'

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Africa, and African safaris in particular, are expected to lead the comeback of long-haul international, luxury travel this year.
Africa, and African safaris in particular, are expected to lead the comeback of long-haul international, luxury travel this year.
Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

Like the myriad twists and turns the travel industry has endured over the past year, the emergence of a more contagious strain of Covid-19 in South Africa and resulting travel crackdowns threatened to dim a bright spot in post-pandemic luxury travel: safaris.

But while safari operators say the situation led to a flurry of calls from clients second-guessing their plans for Africa travel this year, they are optimistic the questions represent more of a hiccup than a trend.

Chris Liebenberg, owner of Piper & Heath Travel in San Diego, said most of their clients have been willing to hold their reservations and that things are looking up in light of recent, better and "more measured news" about vaccines and their effectiveness.

"Yes, this emotional rollercoaster is hard to deal with for advisors and travelers, but our job is to work through the noise and find the useful and clear," he said.

"I do expect that in as little as six weeks, once the messages from various administrations and organizations as well as the statistics start looking more hopeful, we will see an uptick in inquiries, perhaps even a flood, though that may be hopeful."

Scott Simpson, co-founder and general manager of Exeter Safari Co., said that while the new variant "is an additional hurdle we really didn't need at the moment, it doesn't seem to have dramatically impacted the strong recovery we are seeing."

• Related: African Wildlife Foundation launches virtual safaris

Still, for travel in the near-term, Simpson said, they are promoting destinations such as Namibia and the safari experiences of South Africa and Botswana rather than, say, weeklong stays in Cape Town.

"Overall though, while of course we are keeping a close eye on the situation, the headlines relating to the new variants (both U.K. and South African) are more alarmist than the reality on the ground presents," he said.

With its early-to-open borders and seemingly unlimited outdoor and socially distanced travel options, Africa has been and is widely expected to continue leading the return to long-haul international, luxury travel.

Kent Redding, founder of Africa Adventure Consultants, says there certainly remains plenty of pent-up demand.

"We get calls from someone every day saying something like, 'I can't not have a trip on the books. I need something to daydream about."

• Related: Seeing safaris in a new light

Since November, Redding said, his company has seen a noticeable uptick and sales. January, he said, was robust, and he hasn't noticed any significant change this month.

Still, he noted, with all the testing and border rules, safari bookings are definitely more complicated.

"I have this one group going on a multicountry southern Africa trip," he said. "They have to get five Covid tests over two weeks. That's no easy feat. But we're making it work."

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