As a tourist destination, Africa seems to be constantly evolving. And travelers are clearly keen to go: According to the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism, 2008 saw an increase of over 55 percent in U.S. trips to Africa, and the first four months of 2009 saw an increase of over 33 percent from the same time last year. The majority of that tourism occurs in the southern and eastern regions of the continent.
“People are more open to adventure,” believes ProTravel Africa specialist agent Maggie Maranga. “Most people go to Africa after they’ve been to Asia, South America and Central America.” Whether travelers want to see wild animals in their natural habitat or experience the excitement of exotic, cosmopolitan cities, there is something for everyone in southern and eastern African countries.
Last Chance, Last Minute
Africa has traditionally been considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and with airlines offering lower fares, this seems like a perfect time to go on that adventure. Dennis Pinto, managing director of Micato Safaris, has noticed that family safaris—often involving three generations of family—are a strong and ever-growing market. “There is a sentiment that while the economy will recover in time, missed opportunities with family can’t be recovered,” says Pinto.
Micato Safaris’ Grand Safari itinerary allows clients to get up close with African wildlife
But another trend has also become popular with travelers: waiting until the last minute to see if prices get any lower. Maranga is seeing an increase in last-minute bookings, especially in the last two months. “Everybody’s traveling [to Africa],” she says, and adds that she has mostly been booking family vacations and honeymoons.
Nickie Fouché, president of AfricaTours, has noticed the same trend, and warns that people determined to book a hot hotel might be disappointed if they wait. “Everybody thinks everything’s on sale,” she says, “and they’re a little shocked when they book last minute and realize they’re not getting the top properties. In Africa, when hotels have nine rooms, they don’t need to discount. The top properties are selling out.”
In the East
As for where the tourists are going, Pinto has observed a recent spike in interest for travel to the eastern African nations of Kenya and Tanzania. “The vast, open plains of East Africa hold a certain appeal for people who long to shut down their ever-present laptops and [PDAs] and get back to nature…Safaris are about wildlife, adventure, cultural experiences and bonding [increasingly, with extended family] in remote, exotic locales,” says Pinto.
Maranga agrees, adding that her clients who visit eastern Africa are awed by the wild animals roaming about freely. “People love wildlife,” she says.
Luxury hotels are taking note of the increased interest: In the last two years, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts has opened or renovated four properties in eastern Africa—Fairmont The Norfolk Hotel, Nairobi; Fairmont Mara Safari Club, Masai Mara, Kenya; Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club; and Fairmont Zanzibar, Tanzania. Those who prefer a more authentic experience, on the other hand, can stay in private bush homes and lodges while on their safari.
In the South
AfricaTours’ Fouché says southern destinations like South Africa, Botswana and Zambia are her company’s top destinations. “A combination of word-of-mouth and press coverage keeps [those regions] in the forefront,” she says.
The recent popularity of HBO’s mystery series "The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency" and the novels by Alexander McCall Smith that inspired it have helped Botswana (where the series was shot and the books are set) become a top destination. Botswana has nature reserves spanning thousands of acres, and few places offer as many opportunities to see so many animals in their natural habitats. Micato has a Botswana-focused tour that includes visits to the Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park, Moremi Wildlife Reserve and Zambia’s Victoria Falls.
With major cities close to enormous nature reserves, travelers to southern Africa can experience a wide range of locations over the course of one tour. A popular AfricaTours package brings guests to Cape Town, Kruger National Park for a safari and Livingstone in Zambia. Another popular combination is a safari in Botswana, followed by visits to Livingstone and Cape Town. Southern Africa is also a popular choice for foodies: When they come back from southern Africa, Maranga says, her clients “never stop talking about South African wine and food.”
Up and Coming
There are still plenty of “hidden gems” to be discovered in Africa. Over the past few years, Fouché says, more Americans are requesting the island nation of Mauritius as an add-on beach escape. “Mauritius is a great beach destination,” she says, “but tends to be expensive and more international.” For a more authentic experience, she recommends Mozambique.
“Mozambique is a true barefoot luxury beach experience with a wonderful touch of Africa,” says Fouché. Maranga agrees, suggesting that clients book a stay after their safari to Zanzibar, Lamu and Mozambique. “I would like to see more people go to Namibia in combination with either South Africa or Botswana,” she adds.
Pinto, on the other hand, recommends Rusinga Island Lodge on Rusinga Island in Kenya’s Lake Victoria for those who want to try a road less traveled. Rusinga’s six cottages and family cottage have high thatched roofs and verandas overlooking gardens and waters of Lake Victoria.
“It is difficult to choose one over the other,” says Maranga when asked about her favorite Africa destination. “How do you ask a mother who has 10 children to choose her favorite child?”
One of Micato’s most popular itineraries, says Pinto, is the Grand Safari, a 15-day tour of Kenya and Tanzania that includes game viewing at Amboseli Park, the Maasai Mara, Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater. Accommodations include Tortilis Tented Camp in Amboseli; Governor’s Il Moran Camp or Bataleur Camp in the Maasai Mara; Kirawira Tented Camp or Grumeti River Camp in the Serengeti; Ngorongoro Crater Lodge; and the newly renovated Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club. The Micato Grand Safari starts at $16,720 per person, based on double occupancy.
Another choice is the Family-to-Family Safari, which incorporates child-friendly activities such as Kid-and-Safari-Director-Only game drives, African mask-making and Swahili sing-alongs. Rates for the safari start at $13,750 per person, based on double occupancy. Rates for both of these packages exclude international airfare.
Vacation for a Cause
“Voluntourism” has become a popular feature of travel in recent years, and tour operators are offering ways for travelers to have fun and do charitable work at the same time. For example, Micato Safaris’ Lend a Helping Hand on Safari extension provides guests the opportunity to visit grassroots programs operated in the Mukuru slum of Nairobi by nonprofit AmericaShare. The program, says Pinto, is especially popular with families. In fact, he adds, AmericaShare saw a 60 percent increase in traveler donations in 2008 compared to 2007, even with the global recession.
“Many of the travelers who participate in the program return to the U.S. [determined] to help sponsor the education of a child,” says Pinto. “The relationship that develops between our past travelers and the children whose lives they have changed [which continues with personal letters/updates written by each sponsored child], is one of the most rewarding and profound results of our guests’ time in Africa.” For more information, visit www.americashare.org.