The Business of Safaris

The Business of Safaris

Business of SafarisMy 30-day safari convinced me that Kenya’s tourism has been reborn and that Tanzania better look out, but that they both might be in trouble.

For a month I guided nonstop 17 enthusiastic travelers – almost all veterans – through my favorite wildernesses in Kenya and Tanzania. All my objectives including finding the great migration and showing off the new dynamic Nairobi were met.

My clients have all vowed to return yet again!

But such enthusiasm needs stoking, and the East African tourism industry is sorely failing in this regard.

Today think of Kenya as a splendid adventure with extraordinary comfort, and think of Tanzania as wilder but more difficult. The distinction is just what an investor needs to create imaginative programs for a wide market.

But both Kenya and Tanzania are not doing so, in fact, they may be doing just the opposite: destroying their own precious industry.

Kenya’s ability to maintain its wonderful wildernesses is extraordinary, given the contemporary pressures of its unbelievably rapid development. That development will leave Tanzania in a deep wake, but it will be meaningless if Kenya can’t get under control a number of destructive political pressures.

These include nearly laughable mismanagement of the Mara (separated from the Kenyan Wildlife Service-KWS) and the unfettered development projects like the new railway through Tsavo or the planned labyrinth of national highways built with little concern for the wilderness.

Tanzania on the other hand needn’t worry for the time being that its great northern wildernesses are jeopardized by development: Global success stopping the Serengeti highway three years ago more or less proved this.

Tanzania’s disadvantage vis-a-vis Kenya lies mostly with its very dysfunctional and corrupt management of its wildernesses. TANAPA and TAWIRA look like expelled primary school dropouts compared to Kenya’s fabulous KWS.

Both countries suffer from corruption and both country’s executives and legislatures are implementing admirable policies to stem it. But I think Tanzania’s considerably worse off in this regards:

Poor implementation of the national park Smart Card program, seriously deteriorating park road maintenance, summary ending of long-time research efforts (particularly with lions) in the Serengeti, and seemingly random allocation of land leases in wilderness territory are just a few of Tanzania’s most serious problems, all rooted in corruption.

Tanzania’s greatest asset is it wildness. Kenya’s most popular parks, Amboseli and The Mara, are over developed, a legacy of years of corrupt allocation of land leases and a dysfunctional multi-tier system of wilderness management. The animals that have survived this congested development have become extremely habituated to tourists, and that’s not all that bad.

But it means that as Kenya’s tourism increases, so will the number of cars. It’s taking increasingly imaginative itineraries to avoid the crowds even now during a tourism decline. The payback to the tolerant tourist is that at the end of the day accommodations at every market level are considerably better than in Tanzania.

Kenya’s accommodations, food, customer service and reliability are much better than Tanzania’s.

Still, the tourist who like myself is more interested in the wilderness, can hardly discard Tanzania for these shortcomings. The much less crowded parks (Ngorongoro being a singular and notable exception) means that the animals are wilder, the landscapes less scarred and – from my point of view – results in a much more exciting trip.

Both countries, though, have what could be an insurmountable obstacle to healthy tourism growth: escalating prices.

Global resellers of East Africa are either conceding market share to Asia and South America, or they are so shaving their itineraries (like OATS or Road Scholar) that all that’s left is but a skeleton of the landscape, people and animal contrasts that distinguishes a classic safari.

Wilderness travel in particular is booming in places like the Amazon jungle and Alaska where prices have actually fallen over the last decade. African safaris now vie with Antarctica as the most expensive destination in the world.

Both the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments take some of the blame for slapping high taxes and escalating entry fees on tourists, relative to other wilderness destinations. But the bulk of the blame rests with poorly schooled investors who have never bet on the medium or long term.

Short term investing requires a high return, and believe me, they’re getting it in East Africa. It also leads to knee-jerk increases in price when demand falls. I can’t think of another place in the tourism world where this is the case. No one is prepared in East Africa to “weather the storm” or “restructure” or “look to the future” when the ‘future’ is hardly more than tomorrow.

The Serengeti remains my favorite place in the world, and the myriad of almost just as exciting places in both Kenya and Tanzania can still provide the traveler with the most unique and exciting vacation on earth.

But that will not depend upon the market, but upon the East Africans who can exploit it if they want to. It’s up to the politicians to stem corruption and infuse real professionalism onto the industry; Up to the business people to begin treating the place as a home they plan on building for future generations, rather than a foreign lark easily disinvested.

I think you know what I’m hoping for.
– Johannesburg

Don’t Walk on Safari

Don’t Walk on Safari

elePushesCarAs my clients well know, I don’t approve of walking safaris anywhere in East Africa, today. Tuesday morning another tourist was killed by an elephant near Tarangire National Park.

Thomas McAfee of San Diego was on a guided walking safari arranged by Tarangire River Camp where he was lodging.

The details are not complete, but reports of the local police report claim the incident occurred at 8 a.m., Tuesday, when McAfee and two others encountered about 50 elephant on their walk.

The report continues that the other two escaped by running away but that McAfee tripped and fell and was then killed by a charging elephant.

Tarangire River Camp is a respectable camp located just outside the park itself. Many similar excellent camps and lodges throughout sub-Saharan Africa located just outside the boundaries of a government reserve are not restrained by park regulations restricting walking. So as a sales tool they offer walking safaris.

Park regulations are strict regarding walking. Walkers must pay a special fee and must be accompanied by an armed ranger, but for the last several years in Tarangire, the main northern ranger post has declined to lead walking safaris.

I can only speculate as to why the rangers have declined to lead walking safaris, since there has been no official reason. But I suspect it’s the same reason I have: there are too many elephants, they are too stressed, and it’s too dangerous.

Be cautious, now, about unqualified criticism of Tarangire River Camp. Virtually every off-reserve camp I know in Tarangire, including my favorite, Oliver’s Camp, promotes walking safaris.

Walking safaris strike consumers as an attractive option to remaining in the car all day, and that’s understandable, and nowhere at no time have they been offered without the understanding of added risk.

The finest and most professional walking safaris in Africa are led by remarkably professional rangers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

And even those have had serious incidents, but notably the professional has been the one who has suffered most, and in all cases in recent memory the tourists were uninjured.

And, of course, incidents occur to vehicles, too. Most of these, in fact, are reported again in Kruger National Park, and the reason is quite simple: There are many more tourists, there, and many self-drive cars, unlike in East Africa.

In my long forty years of guiding safaris I’ve been threatened by animals, mostly elephants, dozens and dozens of times. Three times were very serious. Game viewing – anywhere in Africa – is not a walk through your local county forest preserve.

But times started to seriously change 10-15 years ago. Today the risk of an animal attack while on safari is greater than ever. The risk is easily avoided, but it requires a change in tourist behavior from what for so many years has been considered acceptable.

Don’t walk.

There are qualifications, of course. If you recognize the added risk, then there are places where that risk is less and where the professionalism and heroism of its rangers has a long history. And that’s in southern Africa, especially Kruger.

Zambia’s Luangwa Valley is also a place where walking safaris have been the featured form of game viewing for more than half century, and where the guides have avoided serious incidents for a remarkably long time.

And in very remote locations, for example in Kenya’s fine Bush ‘n Beyond camps in the distant Northern Frontier, walking is probably OK.

Why is it less risky in some places? Because of different animal behaviors in different places, and because of the skill and professionalism of those who might guide you walking.

East Africa, Kenya in particular, has made great strides in the skill and professionalism of its rangers. Tanzania much less so, and Uganda is horrible. But no country in East Africa has the training or supervision that passes my requirements for a safe walk in the wild.

And East Africa’s wild animal population is out of control. Both in terms of simple numbers (which is a main reason I enjoy going there), and because of unusually rapid increases in human/animal conflicts that are not occurring in southern Africa.

Last night I was reading my precious first edition of Theodore Roosevelt’s Game Trails. The book is fascinating on many levels but is mostly an account of his incredibly extensive big game hunt through Kenya and Uganda in 1909.

Many, many times he and his professional hunters, Cunningham and Tarlton, approached elephant on foot, and not always just to kill them. Sometimes, just to taunt them, as when Teddy jovially reports throwing sticks and rocks at one.

To be sure Roosevelt was an accomplished hunter and sportsman, but he was careful about hunting without Cunningham or Tarlton with him. But when he accidentally “ran into” his old friend and fellow conservationist, Carl Ackley, on a private journey released from his professional hunters, he didn’t hesitate accepting Ackley’s request to kill an elephant for the New York Natural History Museum.

In those days, with the prairies and forests and velds literally saturated with game, and few if any people living anywhere, including indigenous people, the human intrusion into the animal paradise was a clear and unmitigated risk – not to the people, but to the animals!

Elephant had been hunted for ivory for centuries, and no human approached them except to kill them. It was virtually the same for anything wild, a bird as small as a wheatear was a target. Roosevelt’s arsenal contained a variety of weapons capable of downing a mole rat.

The relationship between animals and man was clear. Hunter and hunted. And man was supreme. The list of hunter injuries was great as world sportsmen defied death by challenging wild animals: Lord Delamere and Governor Jackson enjoyed showing Roosevelt their wounds from great hunts gone awry, and I definitely felt that Roosevelt tried and failed to be so heroically scarred himself.

But every animal on the veld knew that ultimately there was no contest with man. Man always, always won.

That’s changed.

Protecting animals has tamed them. And it’s important to remind ourselves that “tame” is our definition, not theirs. We have manipulated wild animals so that we can approach them more closely and enjoy them, even as they wander in the wild.

We’ve now had more than a half century of this, and that means a good two generations of elephant and far more in the lesser animals. Wild animals in African parks grow up far less afraid of man than their wild and natural behaviors would otherwise intuit.

That worked beautifully for many, many years. But about 15 years ago it became apparent there were too many wild animals too densely packed into these protected reserves in East Africa, where the most exciting and supreme game viewing occurs.

That’s logical, of course. You protect something and it will prosper. And to be sure “too many” is my own assessment and nothing more scientific than that. Reading Roosevelt it’s quite clear there were more animals then, than now, but they were spread all over the place. Roosevelt reports “zebra attacks” within the Nairobi city limits. Nowhere did he wander, even over the volcanic rock of the northern frontier, without encountering herds of animals.

But they were never as densely packed together as they are, today, in a national park.

Over population has its own inherent risks. It stresses the animals as they compete for the same food sources and breeding areas. Tarangire in particular has the most serious problem, because its principal wild animal is the elephant.

Normal elephant behavior broke down in Tarangire about 15 years ago. That’s when we began to see unusually large groups of elephants (more than several hundred together at once), multiple families, feeding, breeding and moving together. That’s not natural for elephants, but it was mandated by their reduced space.

Global warming has radicalized the feeding cycles. Increased human populations on the periphery of reserves primarily pursuing farming exacerbates the human/elephant conflict.

So the tension between man and elephant increased substantially over the last 10-15 years. A terribly frightful incident on one of my own safaris in 2007, when a dear client was pinned on the ground by an elephant was the final determination I needed. (Stephen Farrand suffered only cuts and scratches after professional and quick action by one of my drivers.)

And since then the situation has been aggravated even further as unusual rains increased animal herds too fast, and as the Great Global Recession sparked increased poaching. And the poaching as I’ve often written is quite different from the corporate, helicopter, big-truck harvest poaching of the 1970s/80s.

The poaching today is generally by a small group of raiders on foot, because the value of a single tusk is so great, the small scale ad-hoc poaching proves economically worth it.

Imagine a generation of elephants, tamed to the point of putting their inquiring trunks through the top of my opened vehicles (as often happens), suddenly confronted one night by 4 or 5 men on foot trying to kill it.

Pursuit as was man’s only role in Roosevelt’s time is new to a young elephant in today’s world. Man is supposed to be that pretty admirer in a steel box. Suddenly that man is trying to kill it.

Contrary to many researchers and general mythology, elephant aren’t smart. They’re beasts, reactive, powerful and now … terribly confused.

Don’t walk among these tembo. We’ve known this for a number of years, now. We’ve been unsuccessful stopping the camps from offering the activity. It’s now your responsibility, and an easy one to embrace.

Don’t walk.

Blame Reigns

Blame Reigns

EscapeFromKenyaConfusion, (global) stupidity and pure intrigue surround three U.S. medical students who just escaped from a hotel in western Kenya that had imprisoned them. Where are they, now?

Logan Key, Brooke Weiser and Ilya Frid, students on a work-study project with the questionably reliable Medics to Africa program, had been locked inside the little Gilly Hotel in Migori, Kenya.

Kenya media reported that the kids refused to pay a hotel bill when presented to them at checkout. They told the hotel manager that they had paid Medics to Africa before coming to Kenya for all the services they had used, including the hotel accommodations.

So the hotel manager … locked them up!

The weekend brouhaha made national Kenyan news and prompted local police in western Kenya to arrest the Kenyan agent who had booked the kids’ program.

But – absolutely remarkably – the police refused to free the kids from the hotel!

It’s unbelievable. Client/hotel disputes are not uncommon throughout the world, and particularly when a middleman or agent is involved. I can’t remember, though, a single case where the dispute involved locking up the patrons.

Then, this morning NewsKenya reported that the students had escaped! Much of their luggage had been left behind in their room, and the news source reported that they had escaped over a fence while guards slept.

Normally, documentation presented by the client showing that payment has been made is sufficient for the hotel to send them off with a smile. The hotel may know from the getgo that they haven’t been paid, but the risk of bad PR from abroad is too compelling for them to start a fight.

The hotel is essentially accepting blame for having itself made a bad decision: extending credit to the agent that was supposed to pay.

Dozens of times I’ve been hired as a consultant by African tour companies to collect these bad debts from intermediaries. I’d say my success rate has been less than 20%, and then only after some serious negotiations that recovers far less than half that’s due.

And I’ve always approached these jobs with full disclosure of such, berating the African companies from the beginning for extending credit to questionable agents. And then continuing to extend credit when the account falls into arrears.

That’s the main problem. I remember, in fact, tracking down an Ohio zoo group at Ngorongoro Crater and telling them that the vehicles they were using wouldn’t continue on if my client, an African tour company, weren’t immediately paid.

Of course, I was bluffing somewhat, but I was furious. And we gathered enough credit cards that I managed to recover about 30% of what was due.

I was furious at everyone, as I am with this story. Of course I was furious with the zoo officials who had not completed due diligence with their American operator (the real culprit who had collected the individuals’ money and bagged it away), but I was equally furious with my African client for having driven them out of Arusha to Ngorongoro without having been paid!

I can’t stand incompetence, but I explode at fraud. And I go bonkers at abject stupidity.

In this case it’s so clear what happened: Medics to Africa, despite one of the kids claiming to the Kenyan media that it was recommended by the American Embassy, which is not true, is not a reputable company.

The owner is currently in jail for having absconded with a far greater amount of money than these three kids’ hotel bill. When you drill down beneath the so-called testimonials shown on its brilliant website, and make all but a few calls to Kenya, you’ll discover that the man is a crook and known to be throughout the community of Migori.

The naivete of believing a website is absolutely incredible.

But the owner of the Gilly Hotel is equally incredible. Under Kenyan law, he is kidnaping. Under Kenyan law, if he felt the kids were ripping him off, he could get an arrest warrant from the local police.

But wait! In this case, even that would be going too far. The hotel owner claims that Medics to Africa had a huge unpaid bill. So why did he even check the kids in without getting at least their payment? He could have refused accommodation when they tried to check-in… that would have been legal.

But wait, wait! Why did the police not free the kids?

My goodness, this story is incomplete, and I’ll try to run it down for you as the ending unfolds. Meanwhile, help these naive kids learn their lesson.

Be careful when you travel. Just like your third grader, crooks know how to make pretty websites, too.

Imminent Generation of Practicality

Imminent Generation of Practicality

Jim&Cheetah.626.sheilabritz.serengeti.mar13Predicting how you as a consumer or as an investor will successfully choose your properties for the future of safari travel is founded almost entirely on the philosophy of “luxury travel.”

Don’t get ahead of me: I’m not concluding that “luxury” will be the winner, quite to the contrary. But to understand this, you need to first understand what luxury travel has meant for sub-Saharan Africa.

Luxury travelers break down into two categories: those who believe “If you’ve got it, spend it” and who’ve got it; and those who haven’t got it quite as much but want to “treat themselves.”

There are, of course, rich travelers who are eminently practical, too, and who will choose their accommodations after they choose their place. A good example of this is the Serengeti where East Africa’s foremost luxury company, &Beyond built its first two properties in the Serengeti in areas that rarely experience the migration (Grumeti and Klein’s Camp).

Both properties are at the bottom of the company’s performance charts.

But such affluent travelers are rare. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I like to think that most of my own affluent clients are more schooled in what they want to see, but for the vast majority of rich travelers, “what” isn’t as important as “how.”

So it was a no-brainer for investors in sub-Saharan Africa over the last two decades, as the world grew more and more divided between rich and poor and the rich became much richer much quicker.

It didn’t matter to these “If you’ve got it, spend it” folks that they would miss the great migration. What mattered was very comfortable beds, good food and service, privacy and space. Of course there had to be animals, but there was little motivation to find the “best game viewing.”

This was a real boon to investors, because many of the choice locales for the best animal viewing had long before been bought by the tried-and-true (Thrun) properties. So this dilemma of not necessarily being able to build in the best place went away.

The other category that considered “treating themselves” during at least part of their safari was attracted by the hoopla associated with the ultra luxury in East Africa, which until it appeared all of a sudden in the late 1990s seemed quite out of context.

I speculate that as many as a third of the those staying at Ngorongoro Crater Lodge do so for the effect, and that likely the rest of the places they stay are much less costly and luxurious.

Crater Lodge has the benefit of being in a good location, too, something unusual for the early luxury properties.

The Great Global Recession aggravated the world’s traveling markets and accentuated the luxury. Luxury travel didn’t really decline much after the initial shocks of 2008. The rest of the markets literally withered up.

But what’s emerging now is quite different from the nineties when use and investment in luxury travel began its prime. Travelers of all market niches are returning to Africa, and the growth is steady and slow just as the economies of the world are growing steadily and slowly.

But the rich market is turning. I know it’s still around, and where it’s going is hard to say. But our anecdotal evidence is that potential safari travelers are much, much more interested in “what” than “how.” And that no matter how rich you might be, value really matters now.

It didn’t before.

I’ll speculate why. I think we’re headed world-wide for higher taxes and a greater redistribution of wealth, and that will certainly trickle down to travel practices. Second, the older generation of wealthy individuals that supported the investment and use of high-ticket travel is dying. That was also the generation of high rollers in derivatives and other nasty things.

Their children know better.

There is some interesting evidence that the luxury companies know this is true.

Wilderness Safaris is an excellent mostly southern African company that basically cornered the market on luxury properties, originally in Botswana and later throughout much of southern Africa.

Last month Wilderness announced it was moving its headquarters from South Africa to Botswana.

The company provided little fanfare with this announcement, and for good reason. There is only reason that any travel company would move from the near-perfect environment of Johannesburg to the only capital city in Africa that has no direct flights from Europe, Gaberone: reduced taxes.

Other up-market companies give us similar indicators. &Beyond is “renovating” Kichwa Tembo in the Mara, which does allow them to champion a million dollar investment. Kichwa was the only non-up market camp in &Beyond’s portfolio, a left-over from its early purchase of Thrun properties from Abercrombie & Kent in the 1990s.

What this means is that &Beyond doesn’t want to conflate the two markets. I suspect they understand the upmarket is shrinking, and that the competition for it will grow more intense. Not a good idea to have a pizza delivered into the kitchen of a gourmet restaurant.

And another wannabe luxury company, Sanctuary Retreats, has just announced a seventh luxury small cruise ship in Myanmar. This means the company which was defined by luxury African lodges will now have more than half as many boats as lodges.

These big, enormously successful companies are doing the right things. They can’t remake themselves into something less for the future, so they are preparing to be more and more competitive for what I think is going to be a diminishing luxury market.

And that means, of course …

… that the Thruns will return. The “thoroughly reliable and unspectacular” properties I wrote about in Thursday’s blog will reemerge, I believe, as the dominant market in safari travel in the next 5-20 years.

A generation of practicality is upon us.

Versailles & The Moso Mantra

Versailles & The Moso Mantra

maasaiversaillesSafari travel beginning at the turn of the century has been increasingly defined by luxury. It’s a trend that’s been fabulously successful for investors and consumers alike.

Broadly speaking there are three types of places to stay in East Africa when on safari: Tuesday I wrote about the “flash-in-the-pan;” yesterday of the thoroughly reliable and unspectacular [“Thruns”] and Monday I’ll predict for both investors and consumers the future opportunities for all three types.

As any tourism market matures and grows more competitive, “luxury” is added to “price” as a sales point. It starts first with existing middle-market properties that are similarly priced as a reason to choose between them.

But with time “luxury” becomes a sales point all to itself, quite apart from price, and with exotic markets like East Africa in particular, it just seems a natural component of a destination that is expensive to begin with.

Everything modern in emerging countries (except mobile phones, it seems) is expensive: Cars are more expensive, modern homes are more expensive, modern clothes and so forth. And so is travel.

This is because all those things depend on imports: Fuel, building supplies and parts, many foodstuffs … and often, even staff, must come from abroad.

As this expense grows with time and relative to similarly distant destinations whose economies are maturing faster and therefore producing those necessary items locally (like China), it becomes more difficult to justify the higher costs.

Unless, of course, someone spreads rose petals up to your steaming four-claw Victoria bathtub which is placed beneath a giant chandelier and in front of an 12-foot window that overlooks Ngorongoro Crater.

And then the race to see who can make the most luxurious property is on. And the winners corner that extremely valuable part of the traveler market, the one that is pretty immune to even the near cataclysmic ups and downs of a global recession: the market of the rich.

This is what I call the moment’s splendor [“Moso”] type of East African property, and I choose that descriptor advisedly. Once outside of your four-claw bathtub back on the road, you won’t be able to avoid the innumerable bumps, horrible dust and lack of air-conditioning.

You won’t be able to easily replace your shampoo if you spill it, and the national grid might be down so no matter how good the wifi is in the room, there might be no internet. Plenty of hot water, when there’s water at all if the urban property dares to rely on mainline supplies.

The luxury is very confined to where you eat and sleep at night, and when something goes wrong, like no lights, you suddenly notice the wilderness more than you ever expected to.

And even when everything is going according to scheme (which I’m happy to admit is more and more with every passing day), and you are taking pictures of that magnificent lion pride out on the veld, you as the luxury traveler feels and experiences nothing more than the pensioner staying at a modern hostel who is in that old minibus on the other side of the lion pride.

The splendor can be quite limited.

But it seems to have worked. There have been few “flash-in-the-pans” and virtually no Thrun properties built in East Africa for more than a decade, but there is a plethora of new, luxury places to stay.

The most famous one in East Africa is Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, which we call “Maasai Versailles.” I’ve often stayed there and often written about it, positively in the beginning and negatively with time.

With time you begin to realize how “momentary” the moment is in the context of a good safari, and then the costs start to seem outrageous.

Prices at Crater Lodge vary between $1000 and $1650 per person per day, and when bundled with the other costs associated with a safari (fees, transport, etc.) this can be up to 10 times the cost of staying at a “thoroughly reliable and unspectacular” property, like the Serena Lodge about ten minutes down the road from it.

But it takes time and multiple visits to realize how “momentary” the moment is, and there is little question that the good luxury properties in East Africa do their trick. At least part of it. Reviews are pretty solid and good. What remains to be seen is if they – like the Thrun travelers – return multiple times.

We don’t have statistics for this, but my sense is that they don’t. Thrun travelers are among the most repetitive travelers in the world, returning 3-4 times during their lifetime of travel.

I don’t think that’s the case with Moso travelers, and that’s the part of the trick that might be missing with them. (More about this on Monday.)

Crater Lodge is hardly my favorite in this category. My favorites include Gibb’s Farm (which straddles this category with the Thruns), Dunia Camp (Serengeti, as well as many of its sister camps in the Asilia chain), Sarara (northern Kenya), Sand Rivers (The Selous), and Swala (in Tarangire).

Today, travelers accustomed to luxury won’t give it up just to have an exciting safari. Indeed, they did in the 1970s and 1980s. But times have changed, services have improved: There are no more 19th century aristocrats who dress for catered dinners in Kensington but use ferns as toilet paper while hunting lions. Today, there is a choice, however flawed it can be, for a “luxury safari.”

That’s the Moso mantra, and it’s what drives both investment and use of luxury safari properties in East Africa. But will it last?

See my next blog, Monday.

The Tried-and-True Thrun

The Tried-and-True Thrun

ndutucampfireThe “reliable and unspectacular” places to stay in East Africa [Thruns] are often my favorite, not just because they aren’t overpriced. Like many of the earlier properties built for safari travel, they were built to last and on prime space.

Tuesday’s blog was about the “flash-in-the-pan” properties and tomorrow’s blog is about the moment’s splendor properties. And then Monday I’ll summarize the series and let both investors and consumers know what I think the future holds.

This second category is in many ways my personal favorite, because I’ve been traveling to Africa for years and hope to continue doing so. To me the Maasai Mara is the draw, not Bateleur Camp. So main Governor’s is just fine, thank you.

These are the good ole places, the places that have been around for years and work well. They aren’t fancy, but you know when you go there you’ll be well taken care of, and because they’ve been around for a while and started early, there are usually plenty of them that got the best locations.

My favorite of all time is Ndutu Lodge in the Serengeti. But chain lodges can fit into this category, too, and Serena is the example. Serena Mara is absolutely the best lodge in Kenya’s best game park.

And there are many other examples, and they tend to all divide into this big gap between the single, owner/manager property like Ndutu and the mid-market chain like Serena. What they have in common is their inability to make much money for investors.

Mid-market properties are like the airlines. They cash in big during the good times and they dig into deep pockets during the bad times. They develop very loyal customers, but rarely are the customers very rich.

So right now, when only the rich are traveling as we laboriously recover from the Great Global Recession, things aren’t going very well. Long-term? That’s difficult to say.

What they have going for them is remarkable consumer loyalty.

Single owner/manager Thruns like Ndutu Lodge, Ndali Lodge (in Uganda), Ndarakwei Camp (near Kilimanjaro), Gibb’s Farm
(near the crater), Governor’s Camp (the Mara), Larsen’s Camp (Samburu, which does have a sister mid-market but nonperforming lodge in the Mara), the Aberdare Country Club and The Ark, Galdessa Camp (Tsavo East) are examples of single owner properties that have been around for a very long time and technically serve the mid-market, more or less.

(Gibb’s was seriously upgraded several years ago by its new owners to serve the upmarket. It’s a spectacular, wonderful place, but its location and need to command higher prices is problematic.)

I’m sure I haven’t exhausted the list, because what these Thruns have in common is the most loyal clientele in the market: (So even after 40 years of guiding in East Africa I’m personally unable to learn them all.)

These stand-alone properties were built with lots of equity sweat and love by their original owners, and if they’ve been purchased since (many original owners have died) the legacy continues.

The best story that comes to mind is Ndali Lodge in Uganda, where when the father died, the children returned from abroad to run the place because it is so dear to their hearts.

Like any home that is loved and taken care, you can expect to get more than your money’s worth. Some of that statement may validate itself in the low prices to begin with, so don’t expect filet mignon with premium wines or feather pillows fluffed up by your butler at The Ark. But the excellent dinner buffet and cozy old room with a fireplace is worth more than you paid for it.

And that could be the problem with stand-alone Thruns, as I’ll expound more on Monday. The markets below the luxury market dried up in the Great Global Recession.

Monday I’ll tell you if they’ll be coming back.

There aren’t a lot of mid-market chains that meet this second category criteria for me. In fact, there’s only one, Serena.

That’s because these chains are unable to make money for anything beyond the short-term. Serena has maintained its good service, its compact but always working rooms, and its decent foods, through thick and thin.

And in the East African market there’s been a lot more thin than thick since Serena appear in the 1970s.

The most outstanding feature to me of Serena is its people, in particular its lodge staff. They are exceptionally well trained, well-dressed, speak multiple languages well including the language of assuaging aching backs and packed sinuses that often accompany a dry season safari.

The staff behind the scenes, including the mechanics and cooks, couldn’t be better. And they are pretty well paid. Today, this is where a young person begins on her way up the ladder of hotel management. And remarkably, Serena is able to retain huge numbers of its better staff, through good salaries and benefits.

The reason Serena can command the investment long-term that provides a long-term, reliable service that builds clientele is because it has a deep pocket, the Agha Khan, with a mission so appealing he can get significant capital from places like the World Bank.

His appealing mission is to invest in emerging markets in emerging countries. Serena was one of the first first-class hotels in Kabul, for instance. Serena appeared in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda when investment there was considered risky.

And they’ve stayed and survived.

Personally, I choose the single owner/manager properties over Serena mainly because Serena lodges are too big for me and too uniformly styled. But Serena is often a bit less expensive than the stand-alone Thruns, and much less expensive when you buy multiple places. And since they are so perfectly located on the safari circuit, an excellent safari can be wrapped entirely with Serena.

Serena will survive for as long as the Agha Khan’s mission is a valid one. The single owner/manager Thruns are of course more problematic, and I’ll have more to say about that Monday.

Built To Tumble

Built To Tumble

AlreadyFallingDown If you haven’t visited the spectacular Soroi Lodge in the Serengeti yet, you better do so soon, because I don’t think it’s going to be around for a very long time.

The story of Soroi Serengeti Lodge is the story of investment in African safari lodges virtually from the onset of safari travel in the 1960s.

It’s the story of small business trying to cash out quickly on trends, and then always, failing. Only now, as Africa develops its own safari traveler are things looking up … but not for the likes of Soroi Lodge.

Below is my detailed review of Soroi. I stayed there while guiding the Felsenthal Family at the beginning of July for two nights. On Thursday, I’ll generalize in this blog to what’s happening throughout Africa with its lodge investment, tell you which few investors are doing the right thing and why, and what warning signs we’re now getting for the mid-term for safari travel.
pool.soroi
Set about half way between Serena Lodge and the Grumeti airstrip in the southern half of the western corridor, Soroi is one of the most beautiful middle-sized lodges I’ve ever stayed at. The design avoids the cliche of avant garde but is creatively modern with lots of angular twists and turns, multiple levels and daring concepts like putting a pool next to the bar and lounge.
trestle.soroiserengetilodgeSome of this is probably mandated by its limited space, the top of a 600′ high hill 25 kilometers off the nearest road, resulting in an absolutely fantastic and intimate view of the grande dame of African wildernesses.

The 25 thatched cottages and suites are connected by long and sometimes meandering walkways like trestles through outer space, views everywhere.
bathroom.soroi

The bathrooms are about the same size as the bedrooms, which are adequate and heavily wooded, and the piece de resistance is that massive deck overlooking the Serengeti. I estimate the view from the deck stretches at least 35 miles over the Serengeti. There are no other lodges and only one track in this immense area, fulfilling every safari traveler’s dream of being alone in the remote beauty of Africa.
bedroom.soroi
And that’s it folks.

Hardly two years old, this artistic masterpiece is already not working.

Much of the room finishings are breaking off. The thick lustrous wooden stain is already down to the bare wood in the bathroom and there is already significant corrosion on all the brass plated fixtures. The patio doors between the room and the deck no longer close well, leaving a gap for you know what … bugs. The screen meshes on the perfectly designed canvass windows are buckling and tearing.

There is no communication between the distant cottages or reception and management: no phones, no walkie talkies as is often customary. So there is no way to communicate danger, other than a pitifully small whistle attached your key chain, and yes there could be danger. I spotted lion and hyaena tracks regularly on the walk from my room.

There is a bouquet basket of teas and coffees, sugars and sweeteners framed by two lovely china cups on the rather small writing desk in your room, but no tea or coffee maker, and the only way to use them is to order hot water. Staff deliver hot water on demand, but there is no way to order it except to walk up to reception – might as well get it yourself.

And even that is complicated by the lodge edict that you can’t walk around at night by yourself. I learned from an askari who claimed to shoo the lions away every night. But there is no way to call for an askari at night … except your whistle.

And consider the beautiful and large four claw bathtub elegantly described in much of the lodge’s promotional literature. The briefing we got when arriving explained that there wasn’t enough hot water to fill the bath more than … maybe, once. So … don’t use.

Laundry is something that every African safari lodge and camp provides, albeit at various costs from free to outlandish. Soroi’s website and its information packet describes that two pieces of laundry are free and additional will be charged.

But at the briefing we were told there couldn’t be more than two pieces accepted, at any charge. And the complicated maize that management has thrown up to us weary warriors in need of a clean T-shirt included the fact that laundry is only accepted at night, for return the following night. This is exactly half-cycled from what is common virtually everywhere else, morning to that same evening, which further complicated anyone’s laundry plans particularly if they were only staying for two nights.

One of the six rooms my group was assigned didn’t have enough water to flush a toilet.

And my three drivers apologized to me the night after we arrived that they weren’t allowed any water to wash the vehicles.

So what do we have? We have a lodge that doesn’t have enough water, which has not been built to last, and which is declining fast. An investment with a quick R.O.I.

It’s a lovely sand castle, but the engineering won’t withstand the next strong wind.

This beautiful, very artistic but so temporal investment is the perfect example of why investment in African safari lodges is so tricky, and probably so misplaced.

For that, come back to this blog on Thursday.
DeckView.Soroi.500

Three Times Nostalgia

Three Times Nostalgia

Not too many years ago, the Mt. Kenya Safari Club was the magic that made a safari. Today it’s just another resort off the Thika Superhighway.

Bidding has opened for 95 of the quarter million dollar residences on the Mt. Kenya Holiday Homes resort, located hardly spitting distance of the Safari Club. Each of the ultra modern 3- or 4-bedroom homes in two or three stories has a fireplace, and is powered and heated by solar panels.

The 123-acre complex is being marketed to city dwellers who long for a second country home, in a perfect location for weekend hiking, bird watching, trout fishing, horseback riding and that occasional golf.

There will be a perfectly manicured 9-hole golf course, and the entire complex is secure by a big game proof electric fence and mini-moat to keep out those wandering buffalo. But if you yearn for wild animals like zebra, lion, elephant and so forth, don’t worry. The resort is just south of the Sweetwaters Ole Pejeta private reserve, famous for its abundant big game.

When Kenyan safaris first became popular to Americans in the 1970s, trepidation was introduced into hard-earned holidays, and the “adventure vacation” was born. And to be sure back then, we knew lots less about malaria and how to prevent it, many of the roads were hardly tracks, and most of the night time lodging was in very basic tented camps with shared toilet and shower tents.

More than once I took my safaris far enough into the bush that we would encounter locals who had not often seen visitors. It was never certain how these meetings would develop: friend or foe. And about the same time police were being appointed to far out places, and it was always certain we’d be delayed for a bribe.

And quite different from what you might expect, the game was hard to find. There was actually more of it, of course, but it was very skittish of people. It wasn’t really until the 1980s that Kenya’s highland game was approachable enough to take good pictures.

So what game we did encounter evinced the old “fight or flee” syndrome. On my very first safari at the age of 21 on my very fast game drive I was charged and hit by a rhino. In my first decade as a safari guide I had tusks through floorboards, was rolled in my tent by an elephant, escape charging lions, had a woman faint to a bellowing buffalo and watched two lovely ladies scream while being charged by a hippo.

And every day was very dusty and very dirty and the evening’s ice cold water for showers was manna from heaven. And even the finest Chicago debutante appeared at the evening camp fire looking like Miss America.

In those days you didn’t race over to Kenya and back for a 12-day jaunt. Most safaris were 22-26 days long. And by the third week, I would definitely notice “adventure fatigue.”

That was when we’d arrive at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club.

Frankly, in the 1980s, the Mt. Kenya Safari Club was hardly more than a nice Holiday Inn on well landscaped grounds built around a central Victorian mansion. The fact was that there were similar homes in the Kenyan highlands, but kept well under the radar, because they were owned by old white colonials still lying low. So to a visitor the Mt. Kenya Safari Club was the most unexpected and amazing jewel in the crown of an adventure safari.

It cost about three times what other night’s lodging cost. The plumbing always worked. Usually, there was hot water. The food, all local, was fabulous, and the old colonial woodworking, Victoria furniture and servants clicking heels became a sort of Colonial Theme Park.

There was a Members’ Dining Room ostentatiously separated from the guest dining room, and membership (open to all) cost about $500/year. The President of Kenya was one of the few black members at the time. (He was one of the few who could afford it.)

So your richest and most resplendent clients were advised before departing home that William Holden, the principal investor of the Club, would welcome their “membership.” And by so doing on those few nights under Mt. Kenya, you would remove yourself from the grand guest dining room and be escorted by the Maitre D’ into the exclusive members’ lounge.

Back then $500 was about a third what a 25-day safari cost! Using the same metric, today, you can actually make the entire down payment on a 4-bedroom, 4-bath luxury home with a fireplace!

The grand if palatial public areas of the original Safari Club were all deep wood plastered with big game trophies. The Club was originally designed as a hunter’s retreat by William Holden and friends. As photography safaris grew much more popular, the board had no trouble pivoting into the modern age.

Today the Safari Club is a Fairmont Hotel. Its revenue stream is now less than 50% from tourists, attracting Kenyans from the city for a weekend holiday.

And no longer unique, there is nothing here different from other nearby resorts like the new Mt. Kenya Holiday Homes except some very precious nostalgia.

Heri kufa macho kuliko kufa moyo

Heri kufa macho kuliko kufa moyo

Great circus barkers are so accomplished that they spur the tiger through the blazing ring so effortlessly it creates joy from daring. That was Ari Grammaticus.

In this case, the cheetah on the roofhatch. Ari Grammaticus died last month. His memorial service is tomorrow in Nairobi. With him goes the personal daredevil thrill that was the keystone to many early safaris to Africa.

Ari was the son of a Greek railroader who found himself in Kenya in the spring of safari travel. Film had become cheap and powerful. Air fares were cheap and numerous and Americans in particular began to travel like they never had before. And the British colony of Kenya was newly independent, reshuffling the deck of privilege and business opportunities in ways few could have imagined.

Often you never know if some successful person had a good time or not. Ari had a good time. His smile was infectious. He wasn’t a front guard but he was a big man for his time, and certainly matched any Maasai that he encountered. For some reason that became his connection, Maasailand.

Repeatedly and regularly, Ari traveled to Maasailand until he secured management of a piece of Maasailand that I doubt anyone at the time could truly value. It was on the Mara River about 20 miles north of the Tanzanian border and about 25 miles northwest from at the time the only road into this new non-hunting game reserve called the Maasai Mara.

That was in the early 70s, a year or so before my own first safari. The first place my wife, sister and brother-in-law camped was in this reserve off that main road near a place that remains the focal point for the Mara, Keekorok.

Today the Mara is Kenya’s most important game reserve, whether you measure animal viewing, game management, ease of flying in and out of (there are more than 15 flights daily from Nairobi), range of accommodations or tourist revenue streams.

But not then. The only reason we stopped there was because it was on our journey into the great Serengeti, which we did the next day at first light. The Serengeti and Mara share the political border between Kenya and Tanzania. Then, as now, you can’t really tell where one country ends and the other begins.

But today and since 1979, tourists can no longer cross that border. Until 1979, the Mara was hardly anything but a way station to get to the Serengeti. Today it’s the end of the line for Kenyan tourists, and what a fine end it is!

Ari created Governors’ Camp. (Plural today; very singular back then!) To begin with it was a brilliant name, encapsulating the colonial era with abandon. (Today it would be politically incorrect. Today’s camps all carry local names for area clans or African animal names or local geographical features like rivers and hills.)

But what Ari did was build a tourist camp that recreated the admittedly bold comforts that colonials eked out of the surrounding poverty. There was no need for an apology, then, it was the way things were. Africa was being developed, and if you wanted visitors to come see, they needed a toilet. Animals second.

And so they came. His first camp was Governors’ Camp, today referred to as Main Camp. I remember the old days at this camp before the border closed. It was luxurious by anyone’s presumption of what camping would be in those days: actual toilets (although not exactly quick flushers), hot-bucket showers, and a bed on a frame!

One of the greatest treats I as a young guide had in those days was scaring people to death about camping in Africa! Intentionally, we told them very little, or told them about our own personal camping adventures which certainly no travel insurance would have dared cover. And when they got to the camp and saw the privacy and comfort, we had customers for life!

Governors’ modernized with the times, of course, but it never went over the top, like so many did. Even today there are still pressurized gas lamps as your tent’s main source of light. The beautifully wood paneled bathroom is completely functional with modern plumbing all around and amenities of soap and shower gel and all that stuff.

And Ari modernized, too. He built several more camps nearby, including the more contemporary and luxurious Il Moran. He assumed management of a beautiful lake manor house about half way back to Nairobi, and he built a retreat on Lake Victoria.

And his last great achievement was partnering with a several local organizations and the African Wildlife Foundation to build and manage Sabyinyo Lodge in Rwanda for mountain gorilla viewing. There is absolutely no question that this is the finest property anywhere in gorilla land.

We non-Greeks have this pervading notion that Greeks are first and foremost family men. Ari’s sons now take over for him, and his grandchildren were by his side when he died. Once his friend or his customer or his employee, plan on a lifetime.

Time and again he employed one of the finest camp builders in Africa, even though time and again the builder fell off the wagon while building the roof. I was a certain critic of some of his aging driver/guides, particularly when they starting losing their sight, and of some of his cooks who I felt boiled food too long, but Ari was steadfast. Many claimed he was pinned down by the peculiar and nepotistic politics of Kenya, and that may be. But it all fit a better image:

Heri kufa macho kuliko kufa moyo
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The Swahili proverb is one of loyalty and constancy. What you see isn’t as important as what you feel. The first time I arrived the little tree barrier into Governor’s Camp, some smiling guard saluted me like I was the King of England. Since then there have been hundreds of thousands of guests that followed me. And yet today, you’ll be saluted.

But times have changed. What Ari did can’t be redone. The world has modernized too much. Travelers no longer go anywhere without insurance, cell phones and extra medication. You can’t fool them anymore with a flush toilet.

Unless, of course, granddaughter Amy decides to develop Taurus-Littrow.

Afternoon Tea with King Kong

Afternoon Tea with King Kong

I know most of you go on safari to see animals, but how about to be stepped on by them? Right, would you like to be stepped on by an elephant during your safari? It can be arranged.

Zambia’s biggest, arguably best and certainly most famous game lodge, Mfuwe Lodge, presents a special opportunity to its residents from October – December. You can be squashed by elephant.

The lodge is a truly wonderful place, near a river in Zambia’s best game park. By today’s standards, it’s fairly if even value priced. The problem has nothing to do with the politics in the area; Zambia’s politics is a constant clutter of insignificance. It’s not because of AIDS or too many mosquitoes or anything of the sort.

It’s because: “Elephants march through hotel lobby … on their migration trail!.”

That report by London’s Daily Mail was first published in October, 2008, nearly three years ago. And the lodge hasn’t figured out a way to stop it, yet.

I called the lodge Tuesday morning and spoke to Client Relations Manager, Lucy. She confirmed that the elephants came last year and are expected this year. When I asked her if it wasn’t dangerous, she replied:

“I’ve been here for 4 years and nothing’s happened. When they come through we make sure that the guests are out of the way.”

Don’t they break things in the lobby? I asked. “If the juice is out, they might come and drink a glass of juice.” How many? I asked. Well, the original family is 10, but now there’s a second family that also strolls through the hotel.

Mfuwe Lodge has been around for as long as Luangwa welcomed tourists, which is many decades, but it was rebuilt five years ago. The story goes that they didn’t realize they had built the hotel right on a “migration route” for elephants.

Well it’s not exactly a migration route. It’s just that the new hotel layout cuts off a grove of wild mango trees (loved by elephants) from the greater surrounding bush.

Ele would not normally walk through a building, no matter how attractive was the fruit stand on the other side. But Luangwa is not and is not supposed to be a normal place. This is where walking safaris were pioneered by Norman Carr years ago. And the tradition has been preserved to the present time. The animals here are much more acclimated to people than elsewhere in Africa.

I consider that a danger. It’s a danger that once advised may not be considered serious enough to change your travel plans, and to be sure, if you want to walk among wild African animals, this is probably the safest place in Africa to do so. I don’t recommend walking with animals, anywhere. Note that Luangwa is a great place for traditional vehicle safaris.

The walks in Luangwa are led by trained, armed guides. Presumably check-in at Mfuwe does not include an elephant gun rack.

But if you stay at Mfuwe Lodge when the wild mango are ripe enough for the ele (usually the first of October through the end of the year), they’ll most likely be joining you for tea.

The Mfuwe Lodge elephants are clearly habituated to people. So are zoo elephants, but I’d be hard pressed to find a single zoo director in the world that would allow patrons to get this near them.

It’s a mistake that’s been fortunate enough to have had no consequences, yet. Don’t you be there when it does.

Beware Andrew the Crusader Harper

Beware Andrew the Crusader Harper

Andrew Harper’s sissy-fit earlier this year about Nairobi’s best hotel, the Norfolk, because they refused to give him an early check-in (that he didn’t pay for) was just another little annoyance of his that I usually ignore. But now my own clients are asking me to respond, so here goes.

Bit by bit, blog by Huffington Post blog, my irritation with Andrew Harper’s remarks was never great enough to warrant a response. What I noticed was that in 2008 and 2009, when he launched big time his travel company, his critiques started to turn into infomercials.

But, you know, a lot of us (and I include myself) are travel commentators and analysts with travel companies, so there’s no lack of owners recommending themselves. But I’d put myself and many others in the good guy group, people like Rick Steves. I really think we achieve a balance despite our vested interests.

I don’t feel qualified to speak generally about Harper, but I do feel eminently qualified to say what I’m going to say based upon his recent remarks about East Africa:

Beware Andrew Harper when planning a safari to East Africa.

I often caution travelers not to embrace any single guidebook, any one internet site or any single authority or single personal referral when planning their travel, and to recognize that each may provide some insights but that each can also come bundled with inaccuracies and other flaws.

Think of it this way. If you had to tweet the absolute best time to visit your own home town, what would you say? Stutter, stumble, toil and trouble is a good sign. There’s too much to qualify.

A good analysis, travel or anything else, is careful about broad generalizations, mindful about seasons and unique conditions that might be totally off base if applied to someone traveling at a different time or in a different way.

But in East Africa, Harper has lost this care. Of the nearly 1200 safari properties in East Africa, he’s reduced his recommendations to a single company, &Beyond. &Beyond’s good, don’t get me wrong. But it is rarely worth the prices they command, and in fact several of their properties are very poorly located especially for certain seasons. And there are many companies that rival or exceed their standards (Sanctuary Retreats, Lake Duluti Lodge, Bush ‘n Beyond, and some of the Cheli & Peacock properties to name but a few which quickly come to mind, and this is hardly exhaustive).

So what caused Harper to reduce this huge cornucopia of wonderful safari lodges down to the few managed by &Beyond?

I think I know. They’re the most expensive, and they treated him nicely when he last visited them.

Neither of these two reasons is inherently bad. And as I said, &Beyond is good, but clearly Harper isn’t doing his homework and more importantly, an event he himself referred to clearly outs him when it comes to any value he may now possess regarding recommendations in East Africa.

Harper went to East Africa last year and began his trip at Nairobi’s best hotel, the Norfolk. He arrived before the stated check-in, and his room wasn’t ready.

He blew a fuse. He claims that the early check-in had been guaranteed, but Fairmont does not guarantee early check-ins. What they guarantee is what most larger chains do, that the request will be put into the computer record, a sort of priority waitlist.

Harper knows this, we all do! But he simply couldn’t understand why Fairmont would deny such an important critic an early check-in.

(Perhaps it was because, as is often the case, the Norfolk is full up with Heads of State, concert pianists, billionaires and fancy journalists.)

And given what Harper’s now earning from his travel company, I can’t understand why he just didn’t prepay for the early check-in like the rest of us do (including Heads of State, concert pianists, billionaires and fancy journalists).

So he laid into the hotel, unliterally. He threw down the gauntlet and stomped away like a kid who wasn’t allowed to join the ballpark game.

He moved to, and now recommends instead of the Norfolk, Giraffe Manor for a Nairobi stay. First I must say how much I love Giraffe Manor, and what a great job Mikey Carr-Hartley has done since purchasing it several years ago. It’s a fabulous place. As are all the Carr-Hartley properties.

But it’s no substitute for the Norfolk, because of where it’s located. It may be a great addition, but it’s not in Nairobi! It’s no substitute for a good hotel in the city.

The Norfolk is in town. Giraffe Manor is out of town. At the best of times (maybe 2 a.m.) it’s still 40 minutes from town. For the rest of the day traffic can separate them by an hour. The Norfolk positions you for town activities, like the museum, shopping, people gazing, dining, etc. Giraffe Manor is a retreat from all of that.

Harper is simply way off base in his criticisms of The Norfolk. He’s more correct about the mayhem of Nairobi town, but if that’s his gripe, he shouldn’t have stayed at Giraffe Manor, either. Hit the airport and fly directly into the bush. It’s a pain getting to either of them from the airport these days.

Harper tried to list specific complaints, about plumbing and air-conditioning, for instance. He’s right on. But don’t expect you won’t incur such annoyances at every place in East Africa at some time or another, &Beyond and Giraffe Manor included.

That’s East Africa, as compared to Europe for example. It’s a reflection of constant power outages, inferior craftsmanship and materials, and bad roads. It’s a good object lesson in the difference between the standards of expectations in East Africa versus southern Africa. And in the course of an overall safari, it’s hardly noticeable and rarely happens. The fact this litany of irritations all happened to Harper during a single stay at the Norfolk is suspect.

But whether you believe me or believe Harper about the standards of the Norfolk, there’s no way anyone with half a keyboard and dial-up can’t easily prove him absolutely wrong on much of his general commentary about East Africa.

Here’s Harper’s basic introduction to East Africa, corrected with my italics as you go:

“Wildlife-viewing is generally excellent throughout the year in the Masai Mara and Ngorongoro Crater. However, game-viewing opportunities peak from January-April in the southern Serengeti and from June-October in the northern Serengeti. This variation is due to the Great Migration of several million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle. (Gazelle don’t migrate.)

…”The herds gather in the south to feed on the immense grasslands and to give birth to their young. When the food supply is exhausted (only when and because the rains stop) and the newborns are strong enough to travel (that doesn’t matter, they go whether the young are strong or not) they begin to head north and west (and northeast), passing through the Grumeti area from May-July (and a lot of other areas but &Beyond just happens to have a camp in the Grumeti area).

…”By August, (normally only about half) the herds have reached the northern Serengeti, where they cross into Kenya’s contiguous Masai Mara to enjoy its lush grazing. In November (or October (2009) or December (2010)), they begin the 200-mile (roundtrip 200-mile) trek south to the plains of the southern Serengeti, where the grass is once again lush after the seasonal rains. There the epic cycle begins anew.

…”The times to avoid in Kenya and Tanzania are the long rains. (Northern Tanzania has only ONE rainy season. Kenya and only north of the equator has two rainy seasons: long and short. Just look at the welcome sign to the Serengeti National Park which describes this on a sign about 10′ high) in April and May and the short rains in November. The rest of the year, you can typically expect cool nights and warm, sunny days broken by occasional afternoon and evening showers. (There’s been no measurable rain in the Serengeti in September or October for the last half century since good record-keeping began.)

…”In recent years, however, weather patterns have become notoriously fickle. (No cigar, buddy, not as fickle as your mounting inaccuracies.)

OK, OK, there’s some nit picking above, and, in fact, that’s my problem. Take any one paragraph, and it will pass over my bitten lip. Take any one blog about East Africa, and it’s foolish and silly but not worth the time to answer. I even passed on the Norfolk blog last December.

Believe it or not, I even passed on his February blog about the Serengeti, carried in the Huffington Post about the Serengeti highway.

The post is crammed with dated ideas, wrong facts and poorer generalities. But it was the final paragraph that really ticked me off:

“Of course, African people have a right to development. But the Serengeti is Nature’s equivalent to Chartres Cathedral. And if it is not possible to preserve the world’s greatest national park, then what, ultimately, will remain? “

This patronizing, slimy (is it racist?), egocentric condescending nonsense begs all sorts of really important questions many of us have been trying to deal with for years. Harper has proved he has no capacity to judge the “world’s greatest national park” any has moved into vendetta mode.

But I let it sit until recently a client contacted me and asked what I thought, since I still recommend the Norfolk.

What we have here is a man whose ego was pricked by a global hotel chain, Fairmont, and who has lost his cool. Honest critique has been replaced with … infomercials.

I’m not alone, by the way. You can go to the blogs and forums of excellent traveler sites such as Gallivanter, Inworldguide and Flyers.

Here’s one short one that sums them all up:

From BLG on Flyer’s:
“As far as the Harper services are concerned, I was a member for many years and I dropped my membership — didn’t feel like I was getting much that I couldn’t find for myself online, and I was not a fan of their in-house travel agency… I kind of feel like those services have been somewhat obsoleted by the plethora of great internet sites.”

Beware a crusader, especially one crusading for himself.

Ecotourism is Dead

Ecotourism is Dead

Ecotourism is dead. From the President of Tanzania, to the much more critical tourism market itself, feather beds and five gallons to flush a toilet have subsumed efficiency and sustainability. Requiescat in pace.

“Community Based Tourism Projects,” “Fair Trade,” “Shared Value Pricing,” and a ton of other phrases to champion a capitalist market in control of its morals, today those lovely little properties and projects are disappearing downwards faster than loose jeans on teen hips.

It all began when the king tried to pretend he really really cared about the slave weeding his rose garden. And it was challenged when the consumer got fed up with allocating her hard won vacation to another cause. And it was finished when the world global crisis left only the rich in the leisure travel market.

Mombo Camp, Singita Lodge, and Bilila Kempinski, are just a few examples of what works, today, in African tourism, and they are anything but ecofriendly.

I can’t think of a single successful ecotourism property that has been built anywhere in Africa in the last five years, and most that were built prior to that are on the skids. Newly built properties, and the ones that are roaringly successful today are all spas and castles. And there are several reasons why this makes good business.

The foremost is that the mid- and down- travel leisure markets are rapidly shrinking, and by necessity, becoming more and more efficient in delivering their core product: vacations. Any type of exotic or what we used to call “adventure” travel is under heightened pressure just because of how hard it is to get to them and then use them, and these (especially in Africa) were the pillars of ecotourism.

The lower market tiers shrank as all travel shrank in the massive economic downturn, but they never recovered, as the upmarket did. There’s a lot of speculation as to why this is true and if it will ever return, but right now, it’s fact. The midmarket is AWOL.

And there’s another very important reason specific to Africa.

African wilderness is under siege. By development forces like mining and urban development.

Take forests, for example. In Kenya the loss of forests has so drastically impacted in real time the potable water of urban Kenyans that recently a sizable majority of voting Kenyans supported a pretty draconian move by the government to forcibly relocate nearly 40,000 people.

Take elephants. Concerted action by world conservationists to save the elephants began in the mid 1980s. It is a success story without a rival. Not only was a catastrophic slaughter stopped, but wildlife management efforts helped accelerate the recovery.

But to what avail, from the point of view of a young African trying to make a success in the world? To the avail that his farm is being mauled, that his county roads are being destroyed and that his children on a weekend country holiday are in danger?

Take the Serengeti highway, which is just one of many industrial projects currently being plowed through previous grand reserves in order to facilitate rapidly developing industry.

And take the relaxation of environmental standards, which kept the wildernesses healthy. This week Tanzania President Kikwete ridiculed the environmental community for trying to delay mining a 300 million ton soda ash deposit which lies adjacent the Serengeti and will likely at the very least destroy the flamingo populations living on Lake Natron.

“We cannot continue to mourn about our country being poor while our minerals are lying untapped and [while] … our neighbours, Kenya, are doing the same on the other side of the lake,” he said.

Which is true, and is the reason that the Kenyan side has no birds or animals.

“At times I wonder whether those who are opposing this move are really patriotic, because it seems as if they are agents of some people we don’t know,” Kikwete said. Bulls eye.

So with a shrinking wilderness and a shrinking market for it, what to do?

Build Up. As high and expensive as you can get. Be damned the resources consumed to build Versailles! Onwards and upwards! Four Posters! Plunge Pools! Solar Cosmetics!

The upmarket has by definition been primarily interested in comfort and style rather than context. It matters, but less with the upmarket, if the Serengeti road will disrupt the great wildebeest migration. So long as there is still a feather bed at the end of track that has a wildebeest or two, it will be just fine.

Bilila Lodge in the Serengeti is not so dissimilar to an Aman Resort Indonesia or a Canyon Ranch in Arizona. Bilila is a Kempinski property, one of the oldest, most successful European grand hotel chains that exists.

I just stayed at Bilila Kempinski and was truly astounded. The lodge is very remote and made even more so by a single access road that is 35 kilometers long. That’s one impressive driveway.

The public areas resemble any wonderful western spa or upmarket golf lodge, for example, with stylish architecture, spiraling staircases, giant lounge chairs, and lots of glass. The infinity pool is spectacular. Individual rooms are magnificent and huge with tasteful accouterments and the highest quality furniture.

But here’s what really got me: wifi worked better than in any upmarket hotel or lodge I’ve stayed at anywhere, in Nairobi or Dar. The wide-screen TVs had a whole arm’s length of channels, not the 7 or 8 limited ones found in Intercontinentals and Fairmonts in Africa.

Hot water was hot and always so. The air-conditioner not only worked, but well and softly, even when it shouldn’t have (when it was cool out). The telephone by the bed could ring my wife a half world away quicker than reverse when I was in any office in Africa.

The a la carte menus seemed right out of lower Manhattan, and the food was just as good. The boutique didn’t mess around with wood server spoons, but rather trendy canvas art whose price tags usually started at five figures.

Ecotourism is dead, because … it didn’t work. It relied on the generous spirit of middle class travelers willing to donote a little bit of their vacation to a better world order.

What an absolutely laughable idea, today.

Are You a Guilty Tourist?

Are You a Guilty Tourist?

Tourists have always stood out in the Third World as eccentric, rich visitors. But until now they were neither resented or impugned. That may be changing.

Is it right that you as a tourist pay $1500 per day to stay at &Beyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge when that is more than the average wage earned by a Tanzania in a year?

Sunday, a respected journalist in Kenya admitted that the publicity over Kate and William’s engagement tugs his “instinct to look at the dark side of acres and acres of land still reserved in the Kenyan countryside for the occasional pleasures of visiting monarchs and aristocrats, and the local privileged class.”

And while it’s a bit hard to tell from an email address if someone is white or black, I venture that the critical comments left after Otieno’s column were from white Kenyans and that the blacks were supportive or equivocal. More or less.

Until this year, tourism revenues in Kenya were constantly vying for the top foreign currency earnings with tea and coffee. But Kenya is growing rapidly, and manufacturing, mining and service industries look like they will all surpass tourism within just a few years.

Tourism is no longer the sacred cow it was for at least several generations.

Otieno used the publicity about Kate and William’s engagement as the vehicle to discuss the question: are the privileges given the tourist industry fair?

The royal proposal was made while the two were on holiday in Kenya.

I for one was glad to see Otieno’s column. He began politely enough but ultimately used his talent as a writer to make a very strong case. Otieno penned that “the future tribal king of the British” had stirred up a hornet’s nest in Kenya about privilege, land ownership and income inequality.

“I thought we particularly looked good out there on CNN where the local correspondent ably re-enacted a Jesus-born-in-a-manger scene complete with a muddy footpath and a humble cottage where the royal romance miraculously blossomed,” Otieno joked.

But the joke is right on. Christian charity? Christian fairness?

Do the west’s Christian values apply to the extraordinary tax breaks given &Beyond? To the ownership/management of fertile lands normally unavailable to foreigners? To the visa waivers for foreign managers to live and work in Tanzania?

The answers always used to be, Yes of course. Because the benefits to East Africa, mostly in terms of employment, were large enough. But the discrepancy has gotten bigger, not smaller, over the years.

Kenyan GNI from the UN.
Lodge STO Rates: likely effective average amount received per one night stay from one tourist.

Since &Beyond opened Crater Lodge in the late 1990s, the wealth of individual Kenyans has roughly doubled, impressive yes. But the price of Crater Lodge has increased 400%!

Now in fairness to &Beyond, not all that increase has been pocketed by its stakeholders. But in fairness to East Africans, neither is that increase justified by increased prices or taxes. The truth is somewhere in between, but it seems to me definitely skewed to Crater Lodge’s advantage.

And I think that’s what Otieno is basically referring to.

Honing in like a lasek laser Otieno writes the wealth of a foreign tourist “…symbolizes the kind of inequality and ostentation despised by a large section of the Kenyan society.”

This is only the beginning of the debate, but it’s important to expand, and the bitter voices of foreign managers that dominate the comments following Otieno’s blog are disturbing. That kind of vitriol is not going to help our “tourist cause” one iota.

It’s a real issue. Let’s deal with it.

Prices Trending Lower for 2011

Prices Trending Lower for 2011

The weather’s been unusually rainy, but I can see through the mist to a 2011 landscape with fewer tourists on safari.

As we approach the most important annual conference for African tour companies in London next month, the news is leaking. Competition is fierce.

Budget travel has been all but wiped out. Midlevel travel is in fierce competition with a major decline in prices, and upmarket travel is contracting capacity and not increasing prices.

For the prospective traveler it looks good on two counts: (1) there will be fewer tourists, and (2) prices are stable or dropping.

For the local African tourism company, there’s going to be a lot of rolling up the sleeves and hard work. I predict more closures, merges and partnerships and a workforce that is likely to contract by another 5% before it bottoms out late next year.

The surge of travel that followed the technical end of an economic downturn is over, and vendors see this from slim forward bookings. By June of this year vendors had noticed a pullback in December holiday bookings, and pretty grim pickings for the start of the year.

This is an economic cycle at its perfection. When travelers realized the earth wasn’t coming to an end last year, those who had waited up to two years to travel all came at the same time. That’s now over, and the market is readjusting to levels that will be here for years to come.

Germany is an important source of foreign tourists to East Africa, and the German economy is doing well. So companies specializing in tourists from this area of north central Europe might even expand next year.

The other source of a smile is the coast. Sun ‘n sand holiday makers from Europe have replenished the Indian Ocean beaches. Charters were pretty full this past season and will likely stay that way next. Africa’s coast is now a nearly completely matured market that can rival coastal holidays almost anywhere else in the world, and so the value particularly for Europeans is pronounced. It’s a wonderful success story. Now, all we have to make sure is that security that Kenya and Tanzanian can provide will do the trick.

But as far as I can tell, Germany’s momentary economy strength and the East African coast are the only two positive signs in a year which otherwise looks very weak and pretty miserable.

Southern Africa’s ridiculously high exchange rates – a result of the world’s reliance on basic resources like gold in an economic downturn – are keeping prices for everything, including tourism products, ridiculously high and this will continue to depress that market.

Often budget travel does well in an economic downturn, but the problem this time is that the younger traveler no longer exists, the Asian traveler which flooded the market last year has stabilized and is decreasing, and all that’s left are pensioners with an increasing concern about their financial future.

To the extent that the midmarket doesn’t depress pricing enough, it will move down to the budget level. We see that happening right now with chain companies like Serena and Sopa providing Somak’s new customers. To the extent that the first two S-companies lack further pricing moves, they will drop customers to the bottom S.

And that’s where the stiffest competition will be next year: The midmarket. It’s where potential travelers will find the best values and where investors will have the most headaches.

The upmarket was the hardest hit when the economic downturn began in 2008, it rebounded the most in 2009, increased a wee bit again this year, and will take the hardest hit next year because its rebound was so high relative to the overall market. Although where it ends up as 2011 will be remarkably close to where it was in 2009.

The volatility of the upmarket is a result of its small size and ability to price quickly depending upon market trends. So with alarming speed &Beyond published incredible deals in early 2009, ended them with the same alacrity in 2010, and is now presenting them again for 2011.

&Beyond is the only transnational company throughout sub-Saharan and southern Africa, and so it has its feet solidly in two different mud pools. One might be sinking while the other is firm. It’s always a good company to look at for comparisons. Right now &Beyond’s pricing is getting much more aggressive in east than southern Africa, I think because of presumptions that Zimbabwe might be coming back on line and a recognition that the East African market for upmarket travel is cooling.

I’ll revisit all these general predictions with hard numbers after the November convention.

The Mara: Tipping or Tentative?

The Mara: Tipping or Tentative?

Oops. There goes the migration!
A recent study in Kenya has sparked enormous confusion over the long-term future of its wildlife, particularly in the Mara. But a couple things do look certain. Don’t stay outside the reserves and don’t privatize national treasures.

I hate reporting a story like this, but it’s been growing in my conscience like mold on the wall. Time to disinfect.

“Scientific studies” in Kenya just don’t carry the weight of well-funded work elsewhere in Africa, particularly in the south.

Just a few months after rains returned to East Africa late last year, the Kenya Wildlife Service mounted an animal survey that began in Amboseli. KWS concluded that as much as 83% of Amboseli’s wildlife had been lost.

Click here to see the survey. Oops. Gone? It’s been removed. But aha! I saved the paper: click here.

All sorts of bigwig organizations participated in that paper, including some that are now criticizing it.

Evidence is growing that the survey was wrong. Not long after the survey suggested that most of Amboseli’s elephant and wildebeest had died, Cynthia Moss’ ATE
group reported that “most” of the elephant were returning, although with fewer juveniles. And only a few weeks ago, one of ATE’s researchers, J. Kioko, reported that “about 1000 wildebeest have arrived in the park.”

Now, this second damming report might be just as flawed.

The report was funded by the Africa-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and was published in the Journal of Zoology and essentially painted a catastrophic situation in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, claiming the reserve was on the brink of collapse.

The Mara Conservancy, one of the two authorities controlling the Maasai Mara, issued a stunning denial. The Conservancy called the report “false.”

The report put much of the blame on the explosion of Maasai homesteads in the “private” reserves that ring the Mara conservancies. Specifically, the report claimed there were only four homesteads in 1950 and that there are now 368. And in what I consider a gross indication of the report’s inaccuracy, it claimed there were 44 huts in 1950 and 2735 in 2003.

Homesteads, maybe, but huts are built and torn down weekly. The 1950 data wasn’t sourced, but had to come from colonial authorities, and native statistics in 1950 have been proved time and again to be grossly inaccurate.

Paula Kahumbu, Executive Director of Richard Leakey’s reputable Wildlife Direct organization, remarked as follows on one of the report’s huge claims of wildlife losses:

“For the life of me I cannot find the 95% decline in giraffe in any of the blocks – the greatest decline that I can find is in block 3 where numbers of giraffe decline from 37 to 12 individuals. That’s only a 67% decline.”

I’m not trained or blessed with enough time on my hands to wade through the competing reports to determine in any scientific fashion which are right and which are wrong.

But that’s not going to stop me from making a few conclusions that might help those of you interested in East Africa’s wildlife, or those who are considering traveling there.

First, why are things so confused? Isn’t science… science?

Yes to the second, but as the first, Kenya’s problem is unique; unique even to Tanzania, its nearest and most similar neighbor. The government of Kenya long ago divested itself of full control over a number of its wildlife reserves, including both Amboseli and the Maasai Mara, arguably the two most important ones.

These great tracks of national treasure were seconded to local authorities (Maasai county councils) who exacerbated the problem by privatizing their operations.

The federal Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) still has some authority in both areas, but the bulk of the authority, including reporting facts on a day-to-day basis, is left in private hands. Even anti-poaching patrols in the Mara are run privately, not by KWS.

And to make a terrible situation intolerable, in the last decade the Mara was divided into two separately operated reserves. One by the Narok County Council, and the other by a sister Maasai community, the Trans Mara County Council.

One of Kenya’s legendary safari guides, Allan Earnshaw, wrote recently for the East African Wild Life Society, “The root of the problem is the fact that whilst the Maasai Mara is called a National Reserve, it is in fact treated and run as a local asset by the two different local authorities.”

(Problem upon problem: I cannot link you to this article, because remarkably EAWLS does not publish anything digitally.)

But Earnshaw is right on. And it gets truly ridiculous, as is the case as I write at this moment, if you wish to visit the entire Mara (which isn’t very big, you could do it in a day), you have to pay two fees: two times $60, to cross the Serena bridge going from one half to the other.

Anti-poaching patrols and scientific study groups are similarly constricted.

Collection of tourists fees, scientific study oversight and anti-poaching are operated by private organizations, separately for the two halves of the Mara, but the building of tourist lodges is a federal decision.

So since 2005, “no fewer than 55 new camps and lodges have been built in the Mara.” In 1997, there were a mere 20 camps and lodges. Today, according to Earnshaw, “there are over 100 and counting – with a bed capacity for 4000 tourists.”

The confusion over the numbers of animals, and the numbers of tourist lodges, is because there is no single authority managing the Mara. Studies and revenue receipts contradict each other. Private companies, competing for business jobs, exaggerate their potential. There is no neutral authority overseeing all this.

This is a Ph.D study of mismanagement at the least. Can’t do that, now. But let me try to glean from this mess three simple conclusions:

The effect on the area’s wildlife by the last drought was not as bad as local “scientific” studies suggested.

It was still bad, but probably not worse than in previous droughts. And with time we’ll know this for sure, but even in this short period of time since the rains returned late last year, things look pretty good to me.

Second, game viewing is increasingly depressed outside the parks. If you want to see a lot of game, avoid the private reserves and stay inside the park.

(Necessary semantic clarification: The Maasai Mara is not a private reserve, it is composed of two separate (County Council) government reserves, but it is privately managed. But ringing the Mara as is the case with almost all parks in East Africa, are adjacent or near adjacent private lands with tourist lodges.)

&Beyond’s Klein’s Camp and the Grumeti Reserve camps outside the Serengeti are examples. Saruni, Sasaab, Elephant Watch Camp are others outside Samburu. Treetops and Kikoti outside Tarangire. Literally all the Bush ‘n Beyond camps, and Laikipia camps like Lewa Downs and Loisaba are outside parks.

This doesn’t mean they aren’t fabulous additions to a vacation with their own unique attractions. It just means if you aren’t close enough to a park to at least enter it during a day-trip, your game viewing will be depressed compared to being inside the park.

Third, privatizing management of national treasures like a wildlife park or national Park (as being considered in the U.S.) is nothing less than stupid.

It transforms good, neutral scientific studies into the components of a cost-effective business plan. It prostitutes moral authority with profit. The decline of American zoos, for instance, I place squarely on the fact that the vast majority were privatized in the 1980s and 1990s.

America, take note. Kenya’s greatest national treasure, if it is in peril, is because it was off-lifted into private hands.