West Africa mapSeveral operators have recently unveiled new or enhanced West Africa itineraries either as an alternative to the pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean or because of growing demand for what is becoming an emerging destination.

“Sailing the Indian Ocean has become a risky business,” said Ralph Hammelbacher, vice president of expedition development for Lindblad Expeditions, who recently returned from a Lindblad trip along the West African coast. Lindblad introduced its first West Africa itinerary last year, called West Africa & Islands of the Atlantic: Senegal, Gambia, Western Sahara, Cape Verde and the Canary Islands.

Lindblad is by no means unique in its interest in West Africa. Cruise and tour operators have increasingly been offering the destination the past several years.

In some cases, that is due to that fact that to get from Asia or Antarctica to Europe and farther north, some ships are opting to sail up Africa’s west coast rather than sail up East Africa through the Suez Canal and the waters off the coast of Somalia, where pirates have staged numerous attacks.

Others say it’s not about the pirates but about the fact that West Africa is simply becoming an increasingly popular, albeit still niche, destination.

“In a perverse kind of way, the Somali pirates have done West African tourism a bit of a favor,” Lindblad Expeditions stated in a release about its 2012 West Africa expedition. “A number of ships that would otherwise be in the Indian Ocean are now on the West African coast because of piracy.”

Rather than sail the Indian Ocean, Lindblad Expeditions offered a 37-day West Africa sailing aboard the National Geographic Explorer, which departed Cape Town, South Africa, on March 20. Hammelbacher said the company will repeat the same itinerary in March 2013.

A highlight of the trip for the 148 passengers who sailed the West Africa itinerary was a stop in the Freeport of Monrovia, Liberia, making them one of the largest groups of tourists to dock there since the 1970s, according to Lindblad. Opportunities like this are helping to boost West Africa’s visibility.

G Adventures last month announced that it is introducing a West Africa itinerary next year on its 140-passenger Expedition vessel. G Adventures said its decision to head to West Africa was not about avoiding pirates in the Indian Ocean but rather about offering an emerging destination that is gaining in popularity.

According to Jeff Russill, vice president of innovation at G Adventures, the company has operated the ship for four years, and passengers who have sailed on the vessel in Antarctica or the Arctic were looking for new, exotic destinations to explore.

“It’s not a popular tourist destination,” Russill said, but “it is becoming more popular. There’s demand now, and the fact that it’s an emerging destination is why we’re going there.”

He said that the gradual influx of ships and passengers has produced revenue that has in turn helped improve the tourism infrastructure throughout the region.

G Adventures is offering three itineraries that depart in April 2013, encompassing visits to more than 10 African nations: a 12-day Accra-to-Dakar itinerary, an 18-day Cape Town-to-Accra itinerary and a 27-day Cape Town-to-Dakar itinerary.

Travel Dynamics International has been operating tours to the West African coast for the past six years, and it recently announced two new, 34-day West Africa itineraries for 2013, which include travel to 14 countries aboard the 100-passenger Corinthian.

A Travel Dynamics representative also said the “decision to cruise Africa’s Atlantic coast, quite fortunately, has nothing to do with Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean.”

Rather, the company is hoping to give travelers the opportunity to explore “the other” Africa that many Western travelers haven’t had a chance to visit yet.

Moreover, the demand is there. Travel Dynamics said it expects to sell out its two 2013 departures “without issue.”

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.

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