Editor's note: Just days after this Cover Story went to press, news broke of a new Covid-19 variant, labeled a variant of concern, identified in South Africa, and the U.S. placed entry restrictions on eight southern Africa countries. We will continue to follow developments on the omicron variant and its impact on Africa travel.
Space travel has grabbed the attention of the world in 2021, with Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin launching tourists into space.
For now, travelers who want to escape the chaos of a post-pandemic world turn their eyes to Africa for space travel of a different kind, according to an Unlock Africa podcast series on open spaces hosted by Africa Travel Week. Space travel that responds to a longing to be in open spaces, closer to nature, somewhere where it is possible to tune out from the rest of the world.
People are looking for total and complete well-being. Wellness is no longer something that they want to experience as a one-off. It is something that needs to be integral to the travel experience, said Sherwin Banda, president of African Travel.
This well-being is a differentiator with staying power that can benefit Africa far into the future, Banda said. The perennial favorite destinations such as Europe are always going to be a hot-ticket item. But Africa offers the opportunity to go somewhere and have a meaningful travel experience without crowds. This is Africa's time to position itself as the gold standard for sustainability.
It is about finding a sense of groundedness and reality in a time of uncertainty, said Lindy Rousseau, Singita's chief strategist. Since the declaration of the pandemic, she said, there has been a clear move away from overt consumerism, coupled with a deep desire to simplify our lives, reduce waste and dramatically increase other sustainability practices.
Safaris give you all that and make you focus on that which really matters, she said. Africa is constant, it stirs your senses while you watch nature unfold in a continuous rhythm in a glorious morning sunrise, birdcalls or a dark storm. In these wide-open spaces, you can renew your spiritual strength. There's something very compelling about safaris in Africa. The bush is the ultimate healing experience we need at this moment.
Although lodges in Africa are starting to tap into this new understanding of wellness, more could be done. Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris, said he believes the opportunities for lodges in Africa are limitless. I'm thinking of a wellness course which taps into Africa's wildlife. Yoga and classroom mindfulness can be done anywhere; imagine a wellness course that has clients sitting and observing a herd of elephants with their young. Connecting and learning from Africa's wildlife and vegetation can only, by definition, be done in Africa. Now, the connection with wildlife and nature is promoted as part of the game drive, seeing' rather than experiencing,' he said.
Protecting open spaces from overtourism
Overtourism was a major concern prior to the pandemic. From Amsterdam to Venice, New Zealand to the national parks in the U.S., destinations worldwide were dealing with too many tourists.
Although the pandemic brought travel largely to a standstill, the scourge of overtourism is once again looming large. Rousseau points out that mankind's unsustainable production and consumption patterns has led to the planet losing nature faster than it can be restored.
Rousseau said she believes, however, that this decade is set to be defined by transformation and regeneration.
And Rwanda, Banda said, is the perfect example of regeneration and preservation of open spaces. The destination charges $1,000 for a gorilla permit that allows travelers to spend one hour with gorillas. The money is partially invested in protecting gorilla habitats, and as a result mountain gorilla numbers have surpassed 1,000 in the wild for the first time in 50 years.
The low-volume, high-value tourism in Rwanda can stand as a model to conservation efforts in the remote open spaces in Africa, according to Liz Loftus, a private travel designer for Alluring Africa.
Following that example, remote, sensitive ecosystems in Africa will survive and then thrive, she said, adding that conservation, community and open spaces go hand in hand. Impact is what we need to be cognizant of in the future. Low impact is only possible with low-volume, high-value tourism.
Suzanne Bayly, owner of Classic Portfolio, said there is no doubt this model is exceptionally beneficial for the environment, but it is important to ask who benefits from the high value. Is it larger companies that can invest at this level and get a commercial return, or it is the community and conservation stakeholders?
Bayly said that, with the price point of an average safari in Botswana and Rwanda set at over $1,000 per person, per night, it's important to be careful not to become a continent that is only available to the super rich. Africa is enormous, she said. We have loads of wild spaces that can be explored, exciting opportunities that can not only further conservation efforts but be truly inclusive of communities. We need to see a dramatic increase in tourism numbers, and the best outcome would be to have a variety of experiences at different price points and levels of comfort or luxury that appeal to as many travelers as possible.
It's not an easy balance to find, according to Raza Visram, director of AfricanMecca Safaris. He said that the low-volume, high-value tourism model can only be implemented in countries with low populations. Botswana has a population of only 2 million people. However, countries like Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Uganda, all with populations over 42 million, are hungry for employment opportunities.
Dealing in volume brings in more tourists and reduces costs, but volume tourism doesn't mean more land can't be protected for conservation and open spaces, Visram said. We can cap the number of camps and lodges being built, limit the environmental impact and still follow a high-quality model and provide value.
Exploring Africa's Eden
The vast savannahs in Africa are probably the first thing that spring to mind when mentioning the wide-open spaces of Africa. The Kavango-Zambezi Transfontier Conservation Area, an area encompassing adjacent portions of Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe (also called Africa's Eden), is viewed as one of the greatest pieces of wildlife and tourism real estate left on the planet that also has low human density.
Although open spaces have always been a big draw for travelers to Africa, the way in which American travelers are experiencing it has seen a fundamental shift.
Ross Kennedy, CEO of Africa Albida Tourism, said that people are looking to stay longer in fewer destinations. They are slowing down and adapting to a new pace of life while on vacation. Previously, people were on a circuit package, which saw them experience a different camp every day. Now the pace is slowing, and the focus is on more meaningful experiences.
As a result, unique add-ons such as hot air ballooning are steadily gaining popularity, according to John Corse, managing director of Serengeti Balloon Safaris. In the past, about 7% of visitors to the Serengeti went on a balloon safari. It is more than 10% now, he said, adding that it is difficult to track trends as tourism begins to recover.
Loftus agreed and said clients want to find active things to do. I've heard many times "I don't want to sit in a vehicle all day," so they are really looking for a variety of experiences that can allow them to see and experience Africa in a unique way, she said.
Helicopter safaris, scenic flights and hot air balloons are all in the spotlight.
It's a neat perspective to be able to see the bush from the sky, Loftus said. To that end, guests love when they can get in a mokoro (a traditional dugout canoe) or motorized boat. I've also had more interest in horseback riding. Overall, people are interested in any unique and interesting opportunity to have a more active role while traveling.
According to Peter Allison, sales and marketing manager at Natural Selection Safaris, many people are also trying to understand the habitat and surroundings more. They're delving into the culture of the place, learning about unfamiliar animals, such as brown hyenas, meerkats and hidden' species like aardvark and other rarities. A safari can be explored on foot, in a vehicle, from a helicopter, on horseback or in a boat or canoe. Every day should offer something new.
Allison added that deserts are likely to become more popular, as well. People often think of them as lifeless, but in Namibia in particular, there are species that can be found nowhere else on Earth. And Botswana's salt pans offer one of the most diverse safari experiences anywhere on the continent.
Preserving the dark skies
The Milky Way, another impressive open space, has inspired travelers for centuries. Although the U.S. has quite a few dark-sky preserves, there is arguably no better place to admire the stars than in Africa.
At Xaus Lodge [in South Africa], travelers can see beyond the Milky Way to the next galaxies, said Eleanor Muller, marketing executive for Transfontier Parks Destinations. There are very few places in the world that can offer that. Xaus Lodge in the Kgalagadi is at exactly the right latitude and is set up in such a way that it's in the optimal position for dark-sky viewing.
The preservation of dark skies is a crucial part of conservation that is often overlooked, Muller said. You can't have holistic conservation efforts if you don't protect the night skies. It's not just that the night skies are beautiful; the night is half of everything. A vast number of animals and plants need the night and the dark to be able to live successfully and to grow and develop.
More on Africa trends: Listen to our podcast
This week on the Folo by Travel Weekly podcast, Dorine Reinstein, Sherwin Banda of African Travel and Lucille Sive of Travel Corporation's Africa division talk about the latest in Africa travel trends.
Just like the night skies and the open savannahs, the underwater world has always had an incredible appeal for travelers across the world, even prior to the pandemic. Anna Zora, conservation manager for Fregate Island in the Seychelles, explained that pandemic or not the interest in marine conservation activities has always been quite high because, for most people, the underwater world is still a mystery.
Whether or not the pandemic has truly intensified the interest in marine conservation will be tested over the next few years. However, what is certain, according to Zora, is that people are looking for experiences that are different and closer to nature.
She said active conservation on land and in the sea is imperative to preserve marine life. A healthy island will improve and support the health of the ocean, she said. The two ecosystems are strongly related, and we see them as a whole. It's why our conservation efforts are directed to both. Protecting, conserving, creating educational and inspirational activities for guests and local people is so very important, and we believe that sharing information is key for the well-being of the entire world.
Although it is difficult to predict whether the need for open spaces is a temporary reaction to the pandemic or a long-term trend, industry players in Africa are hoping it is here to stay. After all, as Bayly said, the person seeking open spaces' is usually also seeking to make a positive impact on these spaces.