Like most countries all over the world, South Africa imposed a compulsory lockdown in March to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus and hopefully eradicate it from the country. By August, stories of how luxury safari reserves and resorts had to shut down or quickly evolve to some other line of business began to dominate the news. Tales of hardship experienced by retrenched workers followed shortly after.
But South Africa was not the only African country to have its luxury travel industry hit so badly. Safari reserves in Tanzania, Kenya, and Botswana also recorded huge losses, and it is not certain that all of them would be able to recover once the international airspace is fully opened.
It is easy to blame COVID-19 for these tales of woe: after all, countries all over the world are fighting hard to pull themselves out the dark pit of recession. However, the African continent is not the only one to have been hit by the virus: it is not called a pandemic for nothing. The luxury sector, in particular, has been badly hit globally, and businesses that offer luxury products and services have had to pivot rapidly to avoid being swept away with the Coronavirus.
Why then does the African luxury travel industry look like it is faring worse than its counterparts? According to this New York Times article, the answer is not far-fetched. Pre-Coronavirus, most luxury tourist spots on the continent catered to foreigners. Although some of the safaris had local rates prior, there were little efforts to market these packages to locals and even other African countries. This may be partly due to the fact that most of these luxury safaris, resorts and hotels are run by foreigners, but also because, as some of them have argued, most locals cannot afford their rates.
But it appears this last bit is not entirely true. Faced with bankruptcy, the industry has suddenly remembered locals, offering them packages they can afford and marketing heavily to them. As it is to be expected, locals are wary of this sudden ‘generosity’, with some ignoring them completely, while many fear that once COVID-19 is no longer a threat, the safaris, resorts and hotels will go back to focusing on foreigners.
If this happens, the luxury travel industry in Africa will be doing itself a great disservice, not just now, but in the future. It is time for it to make changes, and the pandemic presents the perfect opportunity to do so. For years, Africans seeking luxury travel experiences have gone outside the continent to get them or relied on word of mouth from local travel influencers and bloggers if they want to stay within the continent. As the industry struggles to make it past the pandemic, these five lessons should guide it forward
1. Attracting foreigners is good, but they should not be chased at the detriment of locals.
Alienating the community where you are situated simply because you believe they cannot spend as much as foreigners is ignorant, and as many African luxury resorts have now been forced to admit, this is one belief that is not only false but dangerous to the growth of the industry.
Even if the locals may not be able to bring in as much revenue as foreigners, safaris, hotels and resorts should
2. Create rich packages and experiences targeted at locals.
It does not have to be the same as packages offered to foreigners, but it has to be rich enough to get their attention and make them want to pay for it.
Luxury is more than the price tag. If the offering is right, locals will definitely pay.
3. Work with local influencers, bloggers and media.
No one would know what you are offering if you do not tell them, and the best way to spread the word is to engage with those who have a large following and can communicate your packages to their audience.
Also, asking for referrals and recommendations online and offline would help put your business before more people.
4. Train your staff to treat everyone equally.
One of the complaints Africans have given as a reason for their boycott of luxury tourist spots on the continent is the poor treatment they receive from the staff of these places. Beyond creating packages for Africans and marketing to them, luxury vacation spots must train their staff to avoid discrimination and treat everyone that comes in equally.
Over the years, the attention has been on foreigners, and most staff members have gotten used to the idea that foreign is better. If the industry wants repeat customers from the local community, this mindset must change. Every customer is a customer, regardless of their accent or the colour of their skin, and staff members must be taught to remember this.
5. Push for laws that encourage vacations for locals.
While it is true that quite a number of Africans do not take vacations seriously, it is important to note that money is not the only factor. Other challenges that make vacation less attractive include the difficulties in obtaining visas regionally, insecurity, and even inadequate vacation time offered by businesses.
Stakeholders in the tourist industry should push for laws that can change all this. When the environment is right and the opportunities are properly communicated, Africans will embrace luxury tourism on the continent with the least encouragement.