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Luxury Safari: The Greater Impact of Your Tourism Dollars

Contributed By Kayla Douglas

At the close of each year, we aim to reflect back on where we’ve been while looking forward to where we’re going next.

In this period of contemplation lies an opportunity to ruminate over how one’s personal investment in travel impacts the broader global communities with whom we aim to connect. Yet in typical 2020 fashion, this year’s analysis presents some complexities–or rather, geographic limitations. While our focus in 2019 was on philanthropic trips around the world including visits with locals living nearby the spectacularly rugged Nihi Sumba in Indonesia and iconic Laucala Island in Fiji, this year, we are shifting gears to the vast Sub-Saharan lands that call us back time and time again. Yes, that’s right, on this #GivingTuesday, we’re [still] swooning over the long-lasting impact of embarking on a luxury safari.

Why narrow our focus on “travel for good” to solely to one continent? Well, for starters, Africa remains one of the places most readily available to American tourists in the short-term as we near 2021. With the recent news that South Africa has opened its borders, it joins the good company of client favorites for a luxury safari such as Kenya, Zambia, Rwanda, Namibia and Tanzania in a list of countries that U.S. passport holders can currently visit. And while COVID-19 protocols vary country by country, our team feels reassured in recommending safari not only as the ultimate form of social distancing but also as the kind of trip that by simply going, one supports the fragile ecosystem on which these experiences depend.

Tourism as a Vehicle for Conservation

…your safari doesn’t need a dedicated charitable component–that is, in the form of a community visit or portion dedicated to explicit voluntourism efforts–in order to contribute to conservation.

The symbiotic relationship between Africans and their land is widely understood to be the foundation of conservation enterprises. But what many travelers fail to recognize is that your safari doesn’t need a dedicated charitable component–that is, in the form of a community visit or portion dedicated to explicit voluntourism efforts–in order to contribute to the uplift of local communities and protection of the environment. Simply staying at a socially responsible lodge (i.e. anywhere your SmartFlyer travel advisor would send you) means that a portion of your trip is being funneled into the protection of wildlife and long-term sustainable employment for those who do this critical conservation work. So, when our travel advisors field the frequently asked question, “How much does an African safari cost?” the response is often, “Well, let’s discuss where your dollars are actually being allocated in the bigger scheme of things.

Conservancy System: The Kenyan Model

Each year, safari tourism generates millions of dollars for the Kenyan economy, and these revenues are what have allowed the government and private stakeholders to put an impressive 19% of Kenya’s land in some form of protected status.

Requests for a ‘luxury Kenya safari’ have continued to increase in recent years in tandem with the rising popularity of places like Giraffe Manor and Segera Retreat. But to understand what makes a Kenya safari unique, one has to delve into the logistics in overseeing the precious lands on which these experiences are built. In a piece produced this summer by Sierra Club­–an environmental organization­–it was reported that, “Each year, safari tourism generates millions of dollars for the Kenyan economy, and these revenues are what have allowed the government and private stakeholders to put an impressive 19 percent of Kenya’s land in some form of protected status…These protected lands take the form of a string of state and local authority-run national parks and reserves, including well-known parks such as the Masai Mara, Amboseli, and Tsavo. Protected areas also include a large and ever-growing number of community-run wildlife conservancies.”

While the precise operation methods vary slightly between each conservancy, in general, they represent agreements between local communities and safari tourism entities. These partnerships involve the long-time inhabitants of these wildlife-rich regions setting a monthly fee to lease out their land to safari and conservation groups. The conservancy is formed and thus managed to protect freely roaming animals while in tandem providing job opportunities and cash flow from the leases to local communities. Naturally, this is all done while ultimately catering to tourists who have long dreamt of experiencing the magic of safari.

The danger is that if tourism doesn’t pick up again soon, then local communities will lose faith in the conservancy system and will have little choice but to turn their land over to other uses such as cattle ranching or farming.

Our close partners at the Cottars 1920’s Safari Camp–the founders of the Olderkesi Conservancy, which protects 7,000 acres of wildlife habitat adjacent to the Masai Mara National Reserve–help break down how a lack of tourism threatens the system’s very existence. Owner Calvin Cottar explains that if there are no tourists, then the conservancies aren’t able to generate any revenue, which in turn means that land leasing fees cannot be paid to local communities—all of which would prove to be devastating to their ability to cover essentials like schooling and the sheer cost of feeding their families. As reported by Stuart Butler, “The danger is that if tourism doesn’t pick up again soon, then local communities will lose faith in the conservancy system and will have little choice but to turn their land over to other uses such as cattle ranching or farming. In that scenario, wild animals will end up being removed from the land.”

Reintroducing Endangered Species through Luxury Safari

Protecting and rewilding endangered species like black rhino, African elephant and the mountain gorilla remains at the top of conservationists’ agendas across the continent. And while you may be under the impression that poaching was a thing of the past, shocking numbers of wildlife are still slaughtered today for resale of their parts on the black market. According to a recent report by CNCB, “It’s estimated that three rhinos are poached every day in South Africa. In the whole of Africa, an elephant is poached approximately every 15 minutes. With only 18,000 white rhinos and 400,000 elephants left in Africa, in 20 years’ time at current rates, both animals will be completely gone.” Efforts to combat poaching have taken various forms by NGOs and conservation groups across sub-Saharan Africa, but few have seen success at the caliber of Rwanda.

Bringing Back the Big 5: Rwanda Leads the Way

For our team, the story of “The Land of a Thousand Hills” is one that must be felt in person to be fully understood. But until you can make it there yourself to witness the resiliency of this very special place, we’ll do our best to outline just why it should be at the top of your 2021 or perhaps 2022 bucket list. To visit Rwanda is to take a step back into its dark history; the first part in doing so is a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial commemorating the 1994 Rwandan genocide. While it’s sure to be emotionally fueled, this context will only further secure the imprint left on your heart before heading onto the wildlife-rich regions which drew you here; with a trek to see the gorillas up close likely being a top priority.

…with the reintroduction of rhino and lion to Akagera National Park after a 20 year absence, guests can check off all boxes in the official Big Five (the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and buffalo).

Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park has won wide international praise for its conservation of the mountain gorilla. Pre-COVID, this bucket-worthy experience drew more than 20,000 visitors a year–each of whom pays 1,500 US dollars for the privilege of a permit that allows them an hour in the midst of silverbacks and their families. But, it’s not just gorillas that tourists flock to East Africa’s smallest nation to see first-hand; with the reintroduction of rhino and lion to Akagera National Park after a 20-year absence, guests can check off all boxes in the official Big Five (the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and buffalo). This is an especially astonishing feat considering that according to the non-profit conservation organization African Parks, “In the mid-’90s, lions were hunted to local extinction, rhinos disappeared, and the park’s wildlife was displaced by tens of thousands of long-horned cattle.” Plus, the region is home to one of Africa’s highest hippo densities and crocodiles as well as the rare sitatunga–a member of the antelope family–and more than 520 bird species.

As a country, they’ve made a commitment that conservation is one of the tent poles of their future economic and social prosperity that they want to promote.

As reported by National Geographic, “For travelers, Rwanda’s sustainable tourism practices coupled with the diversity of wildlife in the national parks delivers a variety of options for their safari experience. And it means that no matter which encounters tourists choose to conquer on their bucket lists, they can do so with a clear conscience knowing that their visit is just one part of a country-wide commitment to conservation and sustainable tourism. Here, profits from tourism go directly back into the communities through schools and clinics…As a country, they’ve made a commitment that conservation is one of the tent poles of their future economic and social prosperity that they want to promote, and they seem to be doing it in a real, honest and genuine way that’s pushing the right amount of resources to the right people and the right places.”

Supporting Local Economies in Hiring

Wildlife tourism provides 23 million jobs in Africa, has generated tangible benefits for rural communities in wildlife-rich areas, and funds much of Africa’s conservation efforts.

In our final pillar of focus around how your dollar is reinvested locally when you embark on a luxury safari, we’ll focus on the sheer impact of employment of Africans across the hospitality landscape. Andrea Athanas, Program Design Director at African Wildlife Foundation shares, “Wildlife tourism provides 23 million jobs in Africa, has generated tangible benefits for rural communities in wildlife-rich areas, and funds much of Africa’s conservation efforts. Nurturing dynamic, diverse, and resilient local economies is essential for wildlife to thrive in modern Africa.” And this concept extends not only to our luxury safari lodge partners but also iconic city hotels where so many guests begin their trip, like The Silo, where as a part of the family-owned Royal Portfolio, every team member is considered to be a part of the family. It’s much the same concept at the beloved Ellerman House, a stunning boutique property in Cape Town whose team–led by General Manager Paul Bruce-Brand–worked diligently to host virtual concerts for charity and highlight their staff’s stories from home in their marketing efforts through lockdown.

Hyper-Local Hires: South Africa Hospitality Landscape

The ethos of being a part of something bigger also extends into the company culture of one of our preferred luxury safari partners, Singita, who does everything through the lens of their 100 Year Purpose to preserve and protect large areas of African wilderness for future generations. Their Cape Town-based leadership team embodies its mission of being a purpose-driven conservation brand first and foremost in its hiring of local talent across Singita’s portfolio of fifteen lodges in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Rwanda. When travel came to a standstill in the spring, Singita was able to reinvigorate their Talent Development Programme, which helps to mentor talent while the Singita Academy drives education and career advancement. During lockdown, extensive staff training was conducted as the teams worked on how to elevate, enhance and finetune every aspect of the Singita guest experience to prepare for guests’ return.

Singita found that in their lodges covering Kruger National Park–Singita Lebombo and Singita Sweni, 81% of employees are ‘hyper-local,’ meaning they come from the immediate villages surrounding the lodges.

And while the sheer beauty of their lodges plays the perfect backdrop, the exemplary guest experience is truly driven by the hospitable Singita staff; they are the ones responsible for embodying the warmth and authenticity for which the brand is known. This sense of ownership each team member has over their part in weaving the story of every single stay is much in part due to a keen focus around training and developing local talent wherever possible. As reported in their September 2020 employment study shared with SmartFlyer, Singita found that in their lodges covering Kruger National ParkSingita Lebombo and Singita Sweni, 81% of employees are ‘hyper-local,’ meaning they come from the immediate villages surrounding the lodges. These figures are a representation of the direct trickle-down impact of how each guests’ stay affects the surrounding communities; if there are no travelers, lack of work doesn’t just impact the lodge staff, but all of the family members who depend upon that income.

There’s a rule of thumb in Africa that if you’re able to support one person in the community financially, ten people are benefitting because that’s just how they are culturally. [About] 80 percent of the jobs and the income of these communities comes from reserves.

As reported in Smithsonian Mag in reference to team members within the safari sector, “They’re supporting themselves, they’re supporting their parents, they’re supporting their sister’s kids, they’re supporting their other sister’s kids. There’s a rule of thumb in Africa that if you’re able to support one person in the community financially, ten people are benefitting because that’s just how they are culturally. [About] 80 percent of the jobs and the income of these communities comes from reserves.” Ultimately, what’s critical to take away here is that conservation is not just about animals, it’s about the people who dedicate their careers to looking after them, too. And this all comes back to creating opportunities for community members to work in these hotels, lodge restaurants, and even out in the field as anti-poaching game scouts. Because at the end of the day, they are the ones creating real change. So, when you’re considering your next trip, be sure to think of a luxury safari as not only a personally enriching experience but one that has an impact far beyond your stay.

To learn more about getting started in planning your adventure, contact one of our SmartFlyer safari experts.

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