For the past few years, luxury tourism in Africa has revolved around exclusivity, sustainability, conservation and community upliftment. Many companies, however, were said to pay lip service to sustainability without being truly committed. Tourism industry players agree that if Covid-19 has had any positive effects, it is that the pandemic will pave the way for true sustainability and conservation.
James Haigh, head of sales at Lemala, said the luxury tourism companies that thrive will be those that are truly sustainable.
"We often heard companies say that their people are at the core of their business" Haight said. "However, the pandemic has shown this wasn't always true. The criteria to be sustainable are quite simple: Do right by your trade partners, your employees, your guests, your neighbours, the local population and wildlife. Then, you will thrive."
Luxury travelers after the pandemic, according to Haigh, will be looking to learn, to spend time with loved ones in a beautiful outdoor setting, to participate in healthy activities and to contribute to the environment.
"Africa has always ticked all these boxes," he said. "Covid has simply accelerated the demand of what Africa has been offering for years."
The hiatus of travel has given most people time to reflect, said Sally Cooper, assistant general manager at Gibbs Farm. In essence, more people are consciously making the decision to travel to an area where they can make a positive contribution to local communities, or contribute to the preservation of natural environments and cultural heritage, while learning and further educating themselves.
"We understand that luxury does not necessarily mean bringing in the finest amenities and items from around the world to furnish, decorate, feed, etc., the guests in our lodges," Cooper said. "By supporting local artisans and decorating lodges with locally made and crafted [items], locally sourced organic agriculture for the menus, organic local amenities and encouraging entrepreneurs in the local community, we are given a new level of luxury: bespoke handcrafted, supporting local and minimising our carbon footprint."
Africa is well ahead of other areas around the world in that ecological areas have been well preserved and sustainable practices have been in place for some time, according to Robert More, CEO and owner of the More Family Collection.
"The fact that the traveler has become and will continue to move in a direction of being more ecologically sensitive, responsible and aware will only further encourage better practice by ecotourism businesses," More said. "For the next decade and beyond, sustainability practices will be closely scrutinized by travelers and hence those that are not committed and engaged in actual good practices as opposed to simply generating marketing material around the topic will be found out and will suffer from a reduced commercial demand."
The travel trade has an important role to play in ensuring that true sustainability is communicated to the traveler, according to Marcelo Novais, managing director of Ker & Downey Africa North America DMC.
"As a destination management company and tour operator, we believe that it is our duty to educate clients on the various projects and programmes our carefully selected suppliers offer," Novais said in a webinar organized by Ker & Downey Africa. "This serves to showcase how their trip can make a difference and help them make an informed decision on their travel plans."
Novais said Africa has a host of sustainable tourism initiatives and that more and more luxury safari lodges and hotel groups making great strides in their efforts to provide, preserve and protect. However, there is still room to grow, according to Novais.
"There is also work consistently being done within the hospitality industry to become more environmentally responsible in order to preserve Africa's natural resources," he said. "Lodges are evolving to provide solar energy, electric safari vehicles, organic produce and more. From the perspective of a tour operator, it is imperative to share the best responsible travel practices with clients to ensure they leave a light footprint while traveling."
Various tourism companies across Africa have indeed shown what sustainability is all about during this pandemic with the establishment of exciting and innovative sustainability projects. One such project is the transformation of the Mantis Founders Lodge into an Eco-Innovation Hub, the combined brainchild of digital strategist and product innovator Craig Llewellyn-Williams and Mantis CEO Paul Gardiner.
In this innovation hub, suppliers can test and develop off-the-grid, low-impact accommodations as well as green energy innovations.
A lot of uncertainty remains when it comes to the future of responsible travel. As Sara Gardiner, co-founder and owner of Matetsi Victoria Falls, put it, "There are many different views on the future of responsible luxury travel to Africa; some feel the vaccine will cover the new strain in South Africa and believe we will be back to business as usual within six months, others feel it will be more than a year until we are anywhere close to business as usual. The only certainty over the last year has been uncertainty. So we continue to ride the wave, look after our team and the guests that we do have visit us."
However, what is certain is that tourism will have a key role to play to ensure the sustainability in Africa.
"Tourism is the single biggest contributor to remote economic areas in Africa," More said. "Without tourism there will be increased poverty, increased inequality and increased pressure on these few and ever reducing delicate conservation areas, which will ultimately implode due to the mounting pressure from growing [population]. Tourism [commercialization] is one of the three pillars to a sustainable situation, and without it the other two pillars, conservation and community will all ultimately fall over."
This story was updated to correct Ker & Downey Africa's name.