With a favorable rate of exchange, a surge in new adventure experiences and perceived as a "safe" destination in uncertain times, Africa has steadily gained popularity amongst U.S. travelers, with southern Africa being in particularly high demand, according to suppliers to the region.
"At Travel Beyond, we've seen a huge growth in the number of inquiries for travel to Africa in 2017, and this holds true for other members of the industry, as well," said Craig Beal, owner of Travel Beyond. He explained that Africa has been notably absent from recent media "travel scare" stories that have affected other continents. As a result, travelers opt for Africa as their next destination.
"Southern Africa is growing in popularity as a destination of choice across most of our markets, not only due the incredible variety of experiential travel options available in each region but also due to various global political and macroeconomic factors at play," said Wilderness Safaris U.S. sales manager Craig Glatthaar.
According to Glatthaar, Africa is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime destination but has become a regular travel option with a variety of incredible experiences. He said: "The variety of experiences and quality lodges, new hotels and exceptional guiding have made Africa a must-see, safe and adventurous experience."
The rate of exchange has definitely boosted travel to southern Africa. Year-to-date, arrivals from the U.S. to South Africa were up 20% and totaled 199,853, according to Statistics South Africa. According to Beal, "The dollar is currently very strong against the South African rand, making South Africa a more affordable destination for U.S. travelers."
Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel, agreed that given the strength of the U.S. dollar when compared with the rand, South Africa offers the ultimate in value and a plethora of possibilities for travelers seeking a variety of choice. "Whether guests are seeking a Big Five safari experience, cosmopolitan cities or a rich diversity of cultures, South Africa has it all," he said.
Henk Graaff of destination management company SW Africa added that the favorable exchange rate has also brought about an increase in demand from extended families. "It's becoming a lot more affordable for larger and extended families to travel into Africa," he said. "The biggest challenge for the moment is availability. Popular destinations such as Cape Town have been booked solid for the Christmas and New Year periods."
Extraordinary Journeys founder Elizabeth Gordon agreed that Cape Town in particular will have an added allure in 2017 with the opening of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa and its hotel, the Silo, atop the museum. Created by Liz Biden of the Royal Portfolio, the museum and the hotel will be opening in March.
Africa's popularity will not be contained to South Africa, however. Gordon explained that there has definitely been an increased fascination with Namibia. She said: "There's nothing anywhere on the globe that offers the immense diversity of ancient history, landscapes, incredible flora and fauna, all mixed with ever-changing colors as the sun moves shadows across the land."
Zimbabwe is also a popular destination for 2017 for U.S. travelers, suppliers agreed.
"With newer properties coming online in Zambia and Zimbabwe, this market, which has been typically off the radar for U.S. tour operators, is becoming increasingly popular," said Beal of Travel Beyond.
Wilderness Safaris' Glatthaar agreed and explained enhanced air access has further helped put this region on the map. He said: "More international airlines allowing direct access to Victoria Falls have increased business to the region, with Zimbabwe still growing in popularity since the opening of the new Victoria Falls Airport. Zimbabwe is the come-back kid of safaris always a storied safari destination, it's taking back its reputation as an extremely guest-centric and hospitable experience with incredible wildlife."
Beyond southern Africa, there's also exciting news coming from Rwanda, Julien Perreard of Giltedge Travel reported. This year saw the opening of two major hotel groups in the country's capital: Kigali Marriott and the Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Centre, Kigali. And in June, Wilderness Safaris arrives in Rwanda with the launch of its first lodge just outside Volcanoes National Park, one of the best places in the world for gorilla trekking.