Extended stays, fewer stops, "travel bubbles" and upselling opportunities for travel consultants. These are just a few of the trends that experts predict for African safaris in the Covid-19 era.
Craig Beal, owner Travel Beyond, said he received a lot of bookings for last-minute safaris. "All travelers so far have been blown away by how private the experience has felt. Travel has been very smooth across the board, and the consensus is that international flights are very buttoned-up in terms of Covid-19 precautions. We look forward to sending more travelers to Africa in the coming months."
Here are a few trends to expect:
Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel, said bookings for Africa are increasing week by week. He has noticed an uptick in small-group journeys for people who want to travel together but stay in their travel bubble. "This has been increasing significantly compared to prior years," he said. "We have new small-group safaris for 2021 that have a maximum of six people. These trips spend more time in nature and offer more private options and keep clients' bubbles small."
The end of border hopping 'for now'
Nicole Robinson, chief marketing officer at andBeyond, said that pre-Covid, it was common for people to take a weeklong safari with multiple stops, and a typical two-week safari would involve five or six different locations, including many plane transfers. "Looking to the future, the safari bookings coming through to andBeyond for 2021 have shifted," she said. "People are taking longer trips with fewer stops."
Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris, said his company is encouraging clients to take slower safaris in the Covid era, using the catchphrase "Stay Longer, Dive Deeper." Instead of a 10-night safari, staying just two nights at each of five lodges, Holden is promoting a 10-night safari staying at two lodges for five nights each, pointing out that there is a lot more going on at most safari lodges than just the daily game drive and a hotel accommodation.
According to Beal, multiple countries are currently requiring a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) Covid test to be taken 72-96 hours before arrival.
"It is tough to get a Covid test on safari in the bush, so we are encouraging people to do single-country or possibly two-country trips if logistics make sense," he said. "Since Tanzania does not have a PCR testing requirement for entry by air, it is possible to go to Tanzania at the end of any safari, as long as there are scheduled flights from wherever the client is before Tanzania."
Unique upselling opportunities
People are increasingly "buying up" on their safari, according to Banda. "More clients want small-group charters, purchasing suite and villa accommodations and booking private transfers and private safari vehicles," he said. "It's clear that luxury travel has not slowed down -- the interest and pent-up demand is resulting in inquires and new bookings, which is very exciting."
Robinson said andBeyond is giving clients more control over privacy and distance. "Guests can travel start-to-finish with all private charters, sole-use lodges and private game drives. We want everyone to feel comfortable and taken care of," she said, adding that andBeyond just launched a private jet offering from Sarasota, Fla., to South Africa.
Office and school in the African bush
There has been a growing openness to the possibility that longer stays allow for guests to work from holiday or use our nature locations as a classroom.
"We have all learned that work and school can happen from anywhere," Robinson said.
Flexible cancellation terms
While much remains uncertain during Covid times, andBeyond believes that the deep human desire to learn and explore means travel will endure.
"In order to cultivate that desire, we have created certainty for new bookings received from May 5 by reworking our Covid-19 terms and conditions to provide agility and flexibility around new bookings," Robinson said. "One example: For andBeyond lodges and camps we're allowing 100% refunds on cancellations up to 48 hours before travel."
Jenieen van den Heever, head of sales and operations at Ker & Downey Africa, agrees that although clients are eager to travel, they are not ready to invest money on a luxury safari when the logistics of traveling to Africa are still unpredictable. "We fully accept their reservations to commit to traveling during this time, and we are working wherever we can to offer as much support and flexibility as we can to our clients for their future travels," she said. "In order to remove any potential barriers to stimulating the African tourism economy, lodges and operators will need to maintain flexible terms for as long as possible."
Christelle Horne, general manager for Belmond Safaris, said instilling consumer confidence in the wake of Covid-19 is crucial. "That is why we created our 'trusted for travel' promise on matters of safety, hygiene and booking flexibility."
The cultural element will remain
The cultural element of an African safari is not about to disappear.
"People want to see the heart of the destination," Banda said. "They want to experience local food and culture and dive deeper into the destination. It is about showing the heart of Africa while having an impact on the local culture, and we don't see that changing in the future.
"Of course, it will be more socially distanced with new protocols, but we don't see the experience being less immersive."
Robinson added that the rural communities surrounding lodges are extremely vulnerable.
"We are working closely with community leaders, taking our lead from them as to when they feel comfortable to resume visits without compromising community members," she said. "Once both sides are satisfied that visits can go ahead without undue risk, both community members and guests will need to follow strict protocols."
Holden agreed: "There will be an appreciation that it is up to the visitor to show they are Covid-free and present no risk to the local people when visiting a village or school."
By adopting the World Travel and Tourism Council's Safe Travels accreditation and protocols for protection against Covid, safari lodges can help ensure guests and workers remain virus-free.
Sharing stories around the campfire will remain an integral part of the safari experience
Sharing stories around the campfire about the wildlife you've seen during the day will still be possible with personal travel bubbles, according to Banda. "Our expertise and well-vetted partners manage Covid protocols well. We can still sit under the stars, look at the campfire and share stories without feeling that we are being compromised from a health and well-being protocol."
Holden agreed: "Sitting around the campfire at night can be done observing social distancing and wearing masks if necessary. So, this tradition will not disappear. If anything, it will be strengthened, with the opportunity to sit quietly around a fire and reflect on life, in the company of like-minded people, putting the world to rights."