Sustainability: Top priority or an afterthought when making Africa travel plans?

Dorine Reinstein

Sustainability has been a hot topic in tourism to Africa for the past decade. Trade shows, magazines and newspapers have discussed the topic at length, covering everything from greenwashing to greenhushing — when companies or organizations keep quiet about their sustainability efforts to avoid scrutiny — and green technology. And with COP28, the U.N.’s annual climate change conference, about to begin in Dubai, the focus on sustainability may be at an all-time high.

However, the question arises: Do travelers really care about sustainable travel when planning an Africa trip? Is it a deciding factor when they choose their accommodation and destination?

Most travel agents and tour operators in the U.S. seem to agree that travelers are not actively asking about sustainability when they inquire about Africa and are not prepared to pay a premium for more sustainable accommodations options. The focus is currently still more on the wildlife experience.

“My clients don’t ask about sustainability — it is more of a bonus when they are there and learn about it from their guides,” said Peggy Purtell, a Travel Experts affiliate in Milwaukee.

Jim Holden, president of Holden Safaris, also finds that clients don’t so much ask about “sustainability” as to the presence of all of Africa’s iconic wildlife. “Clients want to know what they will see if they visit a certain safari destination and if they’ll see all of the same animal species they see on documentaries such as National Geographic,” he said.

The fact that they don’t actively ask about sustainable options doesn’t mean travelers don’t care about sustainability. Theresa Jackson, a Travel Experts affiliate in Allendale, N.J., pointed out that although travelers don’t want to compromise what they dream of seeing, they are intentional about their travels.

“I am seeing that clients are grateful to know the ecofriendly measures their accommodations take, and this becomes a way into a more immersive journey for them,” Jackson said. “They come home talking about the wildlife, yes, but also the communities they learn about from staying on conservancy land and/or in places staffed by locals.”

Don Scott, owner of Tanda Tula, said that while people are certainly first thinking about what they are going to do on their trip, making the experience itself the No. 1 priority, sustainability is more than just a buzzword.

“The awareness and concerns about overtourism in the safari sector, people’s genuine interest and their questions about what we are doing to help preserve the regions in which we operate, shows me that it is important to them when making their travel choices,” Scott said. “I think if travelers have to choose between two similar products offering the same type of experience, they are more likely now to choose the one that has an authentic and proven sustainability track record.”

Relying on travel advisors

According to Mefi Pishori Alapat, owner of Journey to Africa, travelers rely on their travel advisor to help them make the right choice. “Sustainability is still important for us, and we look out for partners who participate in that,” Alapat said. “Our guests don’t really ask for that, but we let them know that we choose partners who are involved in sustainable practices.”

Tate Hallford, a Travel Experts affiliate in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., has seen a desire to experience our world in its most primitive state.

“Being immersed in nature, getting up close and personal with animals in their natural habitat and seeing the circle of life firsthand will not be possible without sustainability efforts. Clients are expecting advisors to direct them to partners doing their part for the world,” she said.

Ryan Powell, AndBeyond’s COO for sales and touring, put the responsibility with tour or lodge operators to make the right choices on behalf of guests.

“What we are seeing, which is incredibly uplifting, is the increase in travel companies that are including sustainability in their dialogue,” Powell said. “Without a doubt, this is planting the seed in the consumer — and as we all know, growth has to start somewhere.

“What we hope for is that this seed will help the consumer focus on choosing the right travel partner, one that truly helps make the world a better place through the initiatives and projects it supports. When given the option, travelers do want to make a positive contribution and want to give back.”

Tour operators have noticed that once travelers are in Africa, their interest in sustainability peaks.

“Overall, we are finding that there is a definite increase in consumer interest when it comes to sustainability and positive impact. Sometimes this is spoken about upfront during the booking process, other times this is something that a guest will engage with only during their travel experience when they can see firsthand the work in sustainability, conservation, community development, and land care,” said Powell.

Signs of changing priorities

Adrian Kaplan, executive head of marketing at Singita, has seen more environmental awareness from younger guests.

“These guests often inquire about where the fresh produce comes from and about the solar power or how we are supporting conservation and what projects they could help support, such as the rhino dehorning initiative in the Kruger National Park or supporting the students of the Singita Community Culinary School,” he said.

According to Beks Ndlovu, CEO of African Bush Camps, there has been a shift where travel in Africa is becoming less about consuming and more about how one is adding value in a meaningful way through how guests participate and travel. “Guests are consciously thinking about how their buying behaviors, travel and stay while on safari in Africa are contributing to the local community, the environment and conservation,” he said.

Immersive sustainability experiences on the ground in Africa are also definitely gaining traction.

Robert More, custodian and CEO of the More Family Collection, reported that guests are interested in seeing how the lodges and hotel operate, how the staff live, work and play. “They are less interested in being served luxury and have a growing interest in how luxury is created,” he said.

According to Liesel van Zyl, head of positive impact and product development at Go2Africa, travelers are starting to ask if they can volunteer for a day on their safari.

“Our clients look for experiences that foster authentic community engagement during their trip to Africa,” she said, adding that Go2Africa has launched “positive impact safaris” specifically with this in mind.

With its new collection of Impact Safaris, African Bush Camps has also picked up on this trend and is offering opportunities to participate in sustainable travel to aid rural communities located on the outskirts wildlife reserves. Combined with safari experiences in some of the least-touched areas of the continent, Impact Safaris offer avenues for travelers to immerse themselves in natural beauty as well as in local culture and communities.

It is clear that the key to nurturing a deeper interest in sustainability among travelers to Africa lies within the hands of the tourism industry itself. While Africa’s wildlife remains the primary draw, there is a clear shift in traveler engagement with sustainability once they arrive. This presents an opportunity for the industry – from travel agents to lodge operators – to plant the seed of sustainability early in the traveler’s journey. By actively discussing ecofriendly practices and conservation efforts, the industry can both educate and influence traveler choices, ensuring a more sustainable and responsible travel experience.

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