Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

The time has finally come to wish farewell -- or rather, good riddance -- to the year 2020. 

As Simon Stobbs, chief sales officer for Wilderness Safaris, puts it: "This year has taken its toll on the psychological well-being of many, including those working in the industry whose sense of self-worth and meaning was removed the minute they weren't able to host guests in hotels, lodges, airlines and touring companies across the continent. It is our wish that our guests return to visit Africa as soon as possible, so that we can continue to create life-changing journeys that inspire positive action." 

Indeed, never before has the tourism industry craved the promise of a new year more than it does today, as it hopes for new and increased travel and tourism opportunities and the implementation of vaccines that could spell the end of the pandemic.

As the pandemic has completely reset the travel clock, 2021 will be the year for reinvention. The end of seasonality, a renewed focus on conservation and a greater appreciation of the tourism experience are some of the changes industry players in Africa want to see.

Here's their wish list for 2021: 

Slow down and appreciate the experience

"Going forward, we encourage clients to not rush from one place to the next, but rather stay at a lodge for a longer period of time and return to Africa more regularly," said Marcelo Novais, managing director of Ker & Downey Africa DMC. "Before the global travel bans, even seasoned travelers to Africa would spend only two nights at a lodge before rushing off to their next stop."

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Novais said he hopes that clients will stay at a lodge for around five nights. This will give them time to immerse themselves in their destination, connect with the team at the properties and learn more about the culture, local communities and wildlife in the area. 

"By doing this, I hope that clients will experience different African destinations throughout their lifetime as opposed to just a once off trip," he said.

Focus on sustainability and make it a differentiator

A greater focus on sustainability is the future for tourism in Africa, according to Giltedge Africa's Murray Gardiner. 

 "My wish is that the lessons we learned in 2020 about the importance of a greener future will remain with us going forward, that each safari operator in Africa commits to responsible and ethical tourism practices and that we take continue taking care of our communities, wild spaces, and animals," Gardiner said.

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Katie Gomer, product manager for Africa at Travel Beyond, said her wish is that both travelers and travel advisors begin to make destination choices based on a property or portfolio's true conservation ethos. 

"I personally work with incredible organizations that are making meaningful and impactful investments in both the wildlife and the local people in the areas they operate," Gomer said. "They recognize that tourism is a way to strengthen a traveler's understanding of the overall ecosystems and culture. Moving forward, I'd love to see these efforts be a true differentiator for them in the marketplace."

A renewed commitment to community, conservation and sustainability, is also on the wish list for Rob Moffett of the Ongava Game Reserve. "Each of us now experienced first-hand the abuse of nature. How man, and in what form, are all our multiple abuses of nature going to affect us. And our children?" 

Mefi Pishori Alapat, safari designer at Journey to Africa, said she would like to see more empowerment in 2021. 

"I would like to see safari lodges and safari partners invest and empower the communities surrounding the parks and concessions," she said. 

In addition, she'd also like to see more women empowered to work in the safari business. "This is more than a 2021 wish list, as this will take time," she said. "I love working with safari partners who encourage local women to become safari guides, camp managers, etc."

Dethrone the Big Five

For Hilton Walker, managing director of sales, marketing and reservations for Great Plains Conservation, the idea of the Big Five needs to be revisited

"Clients come to Africa, this massive continent, to only see five animals," Walker said. "It causes unbelievable angst in the guests, and it puts the game rangers under unbelievable stress. Game rangers now need to go and run around to find the elusive leopard, and there's a reason why the leopard is elusive. By creating this hype around the Big Five, it creates unrealistic expectations and disappointment when the Big Five is not seen."

Jim Holden, Holden Safaris, agreed and said he has never promoted safaris as being about the so-called Big Five, instead using the mantra, "look down before you look up" making sure you see the smaller animals in Africa, which in many ways are more fascinating than the Big Five.

"We love to point out the behavior of the lowly dung beetle, busily pushing his ball of dung to feed his wife and new family," Holden said. "Post-Covid, clients will 'reinvent' safari to be more about connecting with nature than the number of gold taps in the bathroom or air conditioning in the rooms." 

The end of seasonality

The idea of high seasons and low seasons for game viewing is not realistic, according to Walker. 

"Africa has a living entity called wildlife," he said. "If you go to an area where there are cats -- lions, leopards, cheetahs, etc. -- you can rest assured that they will come out, as they have to eat something every three to four days. Antelope migrate but cats are territorial. Predators don't disappear during the 'low season.'"

Walker admitted that there are certain times of the year where iconic experiences take place, such as migrations or the flooding of deltas. But he stresses that the wildlife experience in January is just as good -- if not better -- than in July and August. The summer season is green and beautiful and offers a unique wildlife experience with all the young being dropped. In addition, summer afternoons offer the most spectacular African thunderstorms. 

Look beyond tried-and-tested destinations and products

Onne Vegter, managing director of Wild Wings Safaris, said, "Africa has so much more to offer than the standard bread-and-butter itineraries we saw before the pandemic. 

"People will be looking for smaller, more intimate lodges and destinations. There's nothing wrong with the large 100 room hotels or lodge groups, but I would encourage tour consultants to seek out new products and activities, smaller suppliers, lesser-known game reserves, hidden gems and new areas." 

Closer industry and government collaboration

There is nothing to reinvent, according to Vegter, who said that the hallmark of tourism's resilience is its adaptability. 

"As the world changes, we adapt" he explained. "But while we're all in the process of adapting to a changing landscape, with new challenges and evolving technology, we need to remember that relationships matter. We need each other. We need to value and support our suppliers and our trade partners in the value chain."

For Vegter, it's important that the support and collaboration extends to governments. 

"Promoting tourism should be a national priority," he said. "I am hoping to see greater government action to address the issues that continue to harm tourism or scare tourists away. We need to see more cooperation between countries, regions, governments and the private sector."

Nobody knows what 2021 will bring, but let's hope that this African tourism wish list becomes a reality. Because, as Stobbs said, "It is the ideal time to visit Africa -- we are ready and waiting to welcome you."

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