Dorine Reinstein
Dorine Reinstein

This year presented its share of challenges for African tourism as the sector was affected by issues such as climate change, security concerns and regulatory changes.

In 2019, less than 10% of global travelers visited the African continent, according to Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel Inc. He said that while Africa is on many bucket lists, many travelers, including Americans, didn't know where to start and how to make it happen.

Said Banda: "There are also some misconceptions that cause Americans to move it down their list of the trip to take this year. Often, Americans think Africa is too far, unsafe or is suffering the ravages of climate change. The fast-paced media cycle and inundation of information on the internet remains a big challenge. Many only see a headline without the context of a story or get overwhelmed with useless information."

Casey van Embden, marketing manager for Timeless Africa Safaris, added that for U.S. travelers, global political and economic uncertainty has impacted travel to southern and East Africa. She said people want to stay close to home when they feel unsure of their environment.

But other operators -- Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris, among them -- look back on 2019 as a good one for Africa, with no wars, pestilence or major calamities on the continent this year.

Katie Blackstone, product manager for Africa at Travel Beyond, agreed, saying that perception of safety and concern over potential epidemics are two of the reasons that travelers normally might avoid visiting the continent but noting that there was in fact less concern for "events" in Africa in 2019 than in past years.

The outlook for 2020 is promising, according to tour operators. They highlight the following trends and developments that could work in Africa's favor for the coming year:

Increased airlift and relaxed regulations to open up new destinations: The increased direct airlift to South Africa and Kenya from the U.S. is likely to increase travel to the continent, according to Banda, and will open up new destinations to travelers.

Wil Smith of Deeper Africa agreed, saying in the past routes required a stopover either in Europe or the Middle East.  Now Kenya Air has added a direct route from New York to Nairobi, South African Airlines has routes from the U.S. to Johannesburg and United Airlines launched a direct flight from Newark to Cape Town, the world's only flight between the U.S. and that city.

Murray Gardiner, CEO at Giltedge Africa, also noted that Rwanda Air is set to offer a non-stop flight from New York JFK to Kigali in 2020.

Safari-goers are now also visiting more than one country per safari, according to Smith. He says: "Visa and border-crossing restrictions have been eased. You can view the zebra-wildebeest migration on the Serengeti plains and then fly direct from the Serengeti to Kigali, Rwanda, for gorilla viewing. There are numerous other cross-border travel configurations that will only increase variety in African travel."

Transformative experiences continue to trend: Travelers continue to focus on collecting experiences over "stuff," said Banda, and Africa truly delivers transformative travel experiences through its meaningful connections to nature, people and wildlife. "African Travel focuses on making sure every trip has a positive impact, whether it's engaging with wildlife through an elephant rehabilitation program, tracking gorillas responsibly in Rwanda or Uganda, or trailblazing new experiences for travelers to engage with people and wildlife," he said.

Van Embden said that learning experiences and the continuation and entrenching of environmental impact and conscious travel are trends she foresees impacting travel in Africa.

Self-care and wellness are the new buzzwords: Many travelers are looking to slow down, reconnect with nature and wildlife and immerse themselves in the local flavors and environments, said Blackstone. She said that "self-care" has become a cultural buzzword with travelers increasingly drawn to properties that offer spa treatments, garden-to-table meal experiences and other wellness experiences.

Said Blackstone: "Historically, safari camps have been focused on the wildlife and the game drive experience, but well-known resort chains that specialize in wellness are beginning to invest in safari destinations, as well. The introduction of this style of safari accommodation may call to a different type of traveler as well as put pressure on other camps to offer more wellness-focused experiences."

More active and unique safari experiences in the cards: Another current trend in adventure travel worldwide is walking trips, according to Blackstone. "Walking safaris in Kenya and Uganda give safari guests a unique perspective of East Africa's landscapes and wildlife, while adopting a slower travel pace that allows travelers to become immersed in the destination."

According to Deeper Africa's Smith, more active safaris are trending and will be more popular in 2020. He said: "Safari travelers are looking for hiking, mobile camping, horseback riding and exploring new areas."

Gardiner agreed with Smith, saying: "Tourists are moving away from being sedentary, only sitting in a game vehicle, watching, seeing. They also want an immersive and interactive program where they can meet local communities and learn about their culture or meet local entrepreneurs in the bigger cities and exchange business skills. This active trend goes hand in hand with the wider global health trends."

Luxury equals exclusivity: Private conservancies and concessions that limit the number of people is trending among discerning travelers, according to Smith. "Popular destinations like the Serengeti and Maasai Mara are becoming crowded, and travelers are looking for a quieter, more authentic wildlife experience," he said.

At a time when popular destinations are challenged by overtourism, we see Africa as the answer to where you should visit that isn't crowded, said African Travel's Banda.

Culinary experiences are a hot trend for Africa: Experiencing a destination through its culinary traditions is a trend that has certainly made its way to Africa, according to Banda. "The South African wine scene continues to be strong as well as festivals like the Franschhoek Cap Classique & Champagne Festival that highlights emerging vintages like Champagne."

Banda predicted that the African food scene is on the verge of a breakout, especially for adventurous palates. He said: "Many are discovering that Africa has been doing organic farming long before their modern counterparts. Whether on safari, in the tea or coffee fields of Rwanda and Uganda or visiting tribes in the Masai Mara, our guests love to learn of the ancient traditions and taste the bush foods or spices that have been around for centuries."

Conservation will remain top of mind: Africa has shown that it is not the primitive place some people in the so-called "developed world" think it is, said Holden. "When one considers the way the safari industry has tackled climate change: plastic bottles and bags are now uniformly banned in most safari destinations. Safari camps are turning to other forms of power generation other than carbon fuels. And then there is the lead Africa is taking in conservation circles, both for wildlife and the environment."

Marcelo Novais, general manager of Ker & Downey Africa, pointed out that Kenya is at the forefront of conservation and sustainability in Africa. He said: "In 2019, the country banned the use of plastic bags, which will have a positive impact on tourism."

Family travel will flourish: Both Holden and Gardiner said that one of the challenges in 2019 for South Africa was the requirement for children to travel with an unabridged birth certificate (UBC), a requirement that was scrapped only last month.

"With the new UBC regulations, we're sure to see an increase in family travel to South Africa," said Gardiner. "Our boutique lodges and hotels are extremely well set up for children, young families and multigen groups. Our malaria-free safaris in the Madikwe and Eastern Cape are extremely popular among families; the wildlife experience is an incredible lifetime moment to share with one's children or grandchildren."

Although 2020 is an election year in the U.S., a period during which Americans usually slow down on international travel, Africa has all the ingredients to remain a popular destination in 2020. Holden concludes: "The challenge will be to ensure Africa does not price itself out of competition with other destinations. If the price is right, Americans will look for educational opportunities on safari where they learn about Africa's wildlife and conservation projects."

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