The Champagne corks popped last week in South Africa as president Cyril Ramaphosa announced borders would reopen for international travel on Oct. 1.
But those celebrations might have been a tad premature, given that Ramaphosa warned that a cautious approach would be taken and that travel from certain countries with high infection rates would continue to be restricted. That, of course, could very well include the U.S.
As all of this gets sorted out, communication between tourism entities in the U.S. and South Africa will be critical. The good news is that those tourism interests seem to understand how important that is: in speaking with agents recently, I found that a number of suppliers have indeed risen to that occasion since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
In a recent From the Window Seat column in Travel Weekly, editor in chief Arnie Weissmann referenced the book "Covid-19 & Travel: Impacts, Responses and Outcomes," by Simon Hudson. In it, Weissmann said, Hudson gives kudos to hoteliers and others who "pivoted to lend a helping hand," with Micato Safaris being portrayed as a model marketer and communicator through the crisis.
Hudson explained in his book that as international travel came to a standstill, Micato focused its attention on customer service, reaching out to all customers individually, processing refunds quickly and rebooking vacations.
Marty von Neudegg, executive director for international at Micato, was quoted in the book as saying: "We have to decide when we should shift our tone of message to be more sales-oriented. Certainly, we will need to reassure our customers that they are in good hands. We will review every protocol we can get our hands on and establish best practices for each aspect of our business airport greetings, lodges and camps, safari vehicle etc. We want the highest standard in each of those."
U.S.-based travel agencies confirm Micato's communication during the crisis has been impeccable and has helped build trust with travelers as well as keep Africa top of mind.
Marcy Zyonse of LiveTheDreamTravel, a Travel Experts affiliate in Tampa, Fla., said: "I found Micato to be very flexible. They allowed us to delay final payment, which allowed the clients more time to determine the outcome without forfeiting more funds."
Also Renee Taylor, Taylor Travel, a Travel Experts affiliate in Searcy, Ark., said Micato continued to market via emails that are not pushy. "Their marketing is beautiful and gave a subtle reminder that Africa is alive and well and will be ready to receive us when we are ready to travel," she said.
Micato has not been the only remarkable Africa specialist, however, and U.S.-based agents sing the praises of the continent as a whole when it comes to solidarity and communications during the pandemic.
For Jack Ezon, founder and managing partner at Embark Beyond, Singita's Luke Bailes and Royal Malewane's Matt Biden and Simon Many were exceptional. "Both were especially active when we had the water crisis in banding everyone together to get consistent information to media. What they are doing now to support ongoing conservation under Covid is amazing," he said.
Meanwhile, Raza Visram at African Mecca Safaris felt that the Serena Hotels Group did a fantastic job during the pandemic. The hotel group teamed up with their sister organization, Diamond Trust Bank, to provide 200 hot meals daily for the frontline Covid-19 health workers. They continued to engage with the employees from the lodges and offered them an income during times when all times were locked down.
"We feel that Africa has been a leader in terms of creating strong Covid protocols and testing so that the countries can safely reopen for tourism and business. The safari lodges and communities have remained committed to their staff, the wildlife and the vulnerable environment; truly it has been impressive to see," said Crisney Lane, a luxury travel advisor and Africa specialist at Mosaic Safaris.
Lane explained that the tourism boards in both Rwanda and Kenya have been very good at communicating with the industry through webinars and social media to ensure the trade understands exactly what is expected for travelers. "They have helped create a sense that now is the time to go, and one can visit safely," said Lane.
In East Africa, Lane said she has been most impressed with the work of Singita, Alex Walker's Serian, Lewa Wilderness, Great Plains Conservation and Wilderness (in Rwanda) for their continued commitment to the wildlife, anti-poaching teams and training their staff to work under the new conditions. "They have also been easy to work with for postponing client travels to 2021. They have been active on social media, webinars and emails to us keeping us informed and encouraged," she said.
Thought leaders in African travel such as Suzanne Bayly-Coupe, owner of Classic Portfolio, and Tina Aponte of Royal Chundu Lodge have hosted webinars to discuss the post-Covid world. "These have been very inspiring and helped us to focus on the bigger story we always need to communicate about Africa -- the importance of the people alongside the wildlife and nature," said Lane. "They have helped us think about travel to Africa differently and strengthened the bond between independent lodges and us travel advisors. We are feeling a close partnership through these increased interactions -- webinars and social media as well as supportive phone calls."
These close partnerships, strengthened during the crisis, will need to be fostered as collaboration will be key to offering travelers a safe and exceptional experience.
Going forward, Zyonse explained continued information on the border rules, how illness is handled in the country, the number of guests per game drive vehicle, safe travel on planes, distancing, and flexibility with deposits and cancellation with a stated policy upfront in writing is needed.
This kind of information will need to be provided by people 'on the ground' who have first-hand experience of the protocols.