Last month, Cape Town announced that it is lobbying with several U.S.-based carriers to launch a direct flight between Miami and Cape Town. According to industry players, such a direct flight could prove to be a "massive boost" for travel from the U.S., provided it is priced right.
Yet even though connectivity from the U.S. has improved dramatically over the last few years, Africa can be a hard sell for U.S. travel agents due to common misconceptions and miseducation.
Onne Vegter, CEO of Wild Wings Safaris, says: "The biggest misconception is that Africa is overpriced and unsafe as a destination. This is not helped by the recent travel advisory with regards to possible terrorist attacks during Ramadan."
The U.S. government this month said it had received information that terrorist groups were planning to carry out attacks during the Ramadan month against places where U.S. citizens congregate in shopping areas in South Africa (https://za.usembassy.gov/security-message-u-s-citizens-threats-shopping-areas-malls/; South Africa's response: http://www.dirco.gov.za/docs/2016/alerts0608.htm). The statement singled out upmarket shopping areas and malls in the commercial hubs of Johannesburg and Cape Town, widely regarded as South Africa's tourism capital, as the main target areas.
"The recent travel advisory has definitely impacted travel from the U.S. We have fielded several calls from concerned clients, wanting to know if they should postpone their trip," says Vegter.
Also Craig van Rooyen, Tour d'Afrique, says that all travel advisories affect business, as people do cancel or postpone their trips. He adds: "The other issue is that it also puts on hold people wanting to confirm their bookings. We often have no idea what the travel advisory is all about, [so] it's very difficult to provide an informed response to all their questions."
Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris, says the media tends to focus on world disasters, of which Africa has its fair share. As a result, much of what the U.S. market reads about Africa is negative. "The different tourism boards, other than South Africa, don't have the necessary budgets and resources to adequately portray the positive stories out of Africa," he said.
The onus, according to Holden, falls on the private sector to broadcast the positive stories. He says: "The recent Ebola crisis is a good example of this situation. The mass media whipped up hysteria that Ebola was everywhere in Africa; the tourism boards were mostly silent on the subject. The private sector put out press releases through the trade, along with initiatives to both put the situation into perspective as well as ways to reassure prospective travelers that they would be safe, [but] to no avail: Travelers still avoided Africa in droves."
The biggest challenge currently in the U.S. market, according to van Rooyen, is to train the retail trade. "There are over 65,000 travel agents in business and thus with a limited budget only a limited number of travel agents are exposed to Africa. There are a number of tour operators providing the knowledge to the travel agents that do a very good job, but they, too, are limited in their reach," he says.
Van Rooyen said that many still believe Africa is a challenging destination to sell due to the distance from the U.S. and because they don't understand the infrastructure there and the world-class services that the continent's hotels and lodges provide.
David Marek, president of Ker and Downey Safaris, agrees that the trade in North America can't be experts in everything. He says: "Historically, travel agents sell cruises or European vacations. Cruises can be sold easily; you pick the ship, the cabin, the date and go. The experience is then controlled by the cruise line. However, a safari is a lot more complicated. The variety of ecosystems, animals, birds, seasons and cultural experiences make it very challenging. For example, say a client is fascinated by one animal in particular, gerenuk. Does that travel agent know where to send the client to find them?"
U.S. travel agents wanting to sell Africa should turn to tour operators for advice, said Holden. He explained that tour operators can help travel agents understand the unique attractions of Africa. "I don't think it's reasonable to expect an agent, who may only sell Africa once every two years, to learn about the many varied and different ways to visit Africa. That is why the knowledgeable tour operator to Africa will always have a role to play in helping to promote Africa in the North American market."