Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

Africa has been placing so much focus on luxury that it might be at risk of losing its uniqueness. So said a panel of U.S. tour operators, wholesalers and travel agency owners who were invited to a workshop in South Africa hosted by the Southern African Tourism Services Association.

“So much focus has been placed on luxury that it almost does not feel like Africa anymore,” tour operators said. They urged the African trade to develop more and more varied product to appeal to the North American market.

Panelists told African suppliers to not be too overly focused on the luxury elements and rather promote to the three- and four-star market. “When one ultimately thinks about it, South Africa’s three- and four-star market is in most cases seen as luxury compared to the same level of offering in other countries,” one panelist said, adding that it is important to look beyond the ‘high paying’ luxury market and provide the product that makes Africa and South Africa unique.

David Marek, president at Ker & Downey, explains that loss of uniqueness is indeed a concern for Africa. He says: “Everything seems to be high-end luxury.  Some people just want a tent in the bush, but it’s hard to find this traditional safari option in South Africa. I had to send a family to Botswana to get that traditional experience, and I believe there is a growing market for this.”

Marek explains there is nothing more personal than being serenaded awake in the morning by the doves and francolin. He says: “You get that when you are under canvas. Most luxury experiences muffle the great cacophony of the early morning experience. There is something magical and mysterious to lie awake at night and hear an elephant eating the leaves from the tree over your tent or to hear the lions calling in the night. Those memories never fade.”

The media is to blame for a lot of misconceptions about luxury in Africa, according to Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris. He explains the term “luxury lodges,” as used in the media, is often another way of describing the typical five-star establishment, such as a Four Seasons Hotel, in the middle of a national park or reserve.

“But,” says Holden, “a seasonal tented camp, be it mobile or semi-permanent, can also qualify as luxury in Africa. Imagine sitting in a tented camp, having the same experience as Teddy Roosevelt or Hemingway, but with all mod cons, including running water, flushing toilets and gourmet food.”

According to Holden, even when the glossy consumer magazines write about these camps, they put the emphasis on the five-star amenities, as opposed to what really makes the experience special: the guides, the location of the camp, the knowledge and experience of the camp crew.

He says: “Unfortunately, with our celebrity-driven culture, we only want to think we are buying the best and going where the rich and famous go, thinking this is that five-star establishment with the chandeliers and mixologist in the bar. Little do we know that the most authentic and truly rich African safari experience is delivered by a few of the original safari operators, who are hardly ever written about in the press.”

Education is key, according to stakeholders during the session, especially as the general knowledge about Africa is quite limited. Tourism stakeholders need to allocate budget and resources to destination training programs.

Holden added that only a handful of agents in North America focus enough on Africa to have the knowledge to adequately sell the experience. He says: “But that is what we, tour operators, are for: to help them understand the unique attractions of Africa and how an all-inclusive safari differs from, say, a vacation in the Caribbean.”

However, according to Virginia Haynes Montgomery, vice president of travel and tourism for Steinreich Communications, the idea of luxury can actually sell a destination. She said Americans are very tempted by the idea of amenities such as a spa, gym and plunge pools when booking a safari lodge, even though most of the time they will end up not using these amenities.

Said Montgomery: “Once they are in the bush and go on a game drive, that’s when they really fall in love with Africa and its beautiful landscapes, sunrises and sunsets, rainbows and seeing wildlife in its natural habitat. With a good guide, they learn a lot about nature and how everything works together.”

According to Montgomery, luxury will sell a destination, but it’s the adventure that will create the memories.

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