Kingly Kicks

Kingly Kicks

As this (hopefully last) phase of the pandemic ends the tourism that’s left standing in the fields of Africa is fit for a king. In fact only kings. A safari post-pandemic will cost you twice what it was pre-pandemic.

EWT’s informal survey of 2022 safari prices in sub-Saharan Africa shows a dramatic price increase from 2020. Highest in Tanzania, lowest in South Africa but unbelievable everywhere. What’s going on and is this going to last or should you roll back on your heels and wait for sanity?

Gosh, I just don’t know. Living through this pandemic wasn’t taught in any business school. One thing’s for sure: it’s never going back to what it was.

First, just a short lesson in paying to see a lion.

End-of-chain sub-Saharan safaris bought today in the United States are running around $1200/day/person, slightly less in Britain, slightly more in France. That’s compared to $600/day/person in 2019.

“End-of-chain” means from a travel agent or wholesaler like “Abercrombie & Kent” or “Yellow Zebra Safaris” or “Audley Travel” or “Africa Travel Resources” or “San Diego Zoo” or “University of Michigan Alumni.”

If you have enough knowledge and IT savvy to go down a chink to the foreign vendor, by searching for “Thousand Hills” [Rwanda], “Mahlatini Travel” [Kenya], “Jacada Travel” [Kenya & Tanzania], or “RhinoAfrica” [South Africa] then you can shave a third off the end-of-the-chain.

If you really have a lot of time on your hands and can put together the pieces of a safari separately — transport, fees and taxes and accommodations — you can go directly to the property owners like “AndBeyond” or “Singita” [all of Africa], “Serian” [East Africa], “Serena Hotels & Lodges” [Kenya & Tanzania], “Robin Pope Safaris” [Zambia], “Desert ‘n Delta” [Botswana], “AfroEco Safaris” [Kenya] or “Lemala” [Tanzania] and clip a good half off the end-of-chain.

Lots of problems as you hitch down the chain.

To begin with, the difference between the companies grows greater the lower you go. Less expensive companies like “Mahlatini,” for example, might design itineraries that stay outside the national parks to avoid paying the high overnight taxes. This doesn’t mean they don’t give you great guides or wonderful transport. They’re just working towards a certain budget niche where the experience will be absolutely less fulsome.

In contrast “AndBeyond,” “Singita” or “Serian” work the high end. Their closer-to-the-lion prices are still way above what you might get starting out with “Abercrombie & Kent.”

When you start to mix and match property owners you lose the enormous incentives these companies offer direct consumers. “AndBeyond” is in the stratosphere. “Serena” is down with Filene’s Basement though many of their properties are outstanding at that niche. I often mix Serena with AndBeyond where location is important, but doing so loses the great values each provides by using them separately.

Moreover, once you start asking these property owners for the services that connect them to the airports you arrive and depart from, you quickly build back to the higher asking price of the foreign vendors.

Any way you cut it, you’re going to pay double what you would have paid before the pandemic.

Should you wait? How can this be? Well, I can see it both ways.

On the one hand it’s ludicrous. I know for a fact that the costs of doing business in Africa have not doubled. In fact in many if not most cases the actual costs of staff, food, building and maintenance have declined! Marketing has increased and anything to do with finances, like capitalization, has increased. But overall, the costs have declined!

So why are they charging more?

Because on the other hand it’s the way the market’s going.

The gap between cheap safaris and expensive safaris is bigger than the Great Rift Valley. You’ll be hard pressed to find anything in between, and if you do, be awful cautious. There are “good” safaris at the cheap level and “good” safaris at the expensive level. Not at the middle level.

There are two reasons for this.

The first and foremost is the demand side of capitalism. The rich are getting richer. They’ll pay more. Everything in tourism at the high end world-wide is rising with the rich man’s capabilities.

I don’t mean to suggest that the rich person isn’t getting increased value but think about the overall cost of something like a rubber band: divided into sections by all the different costs like property, transport, air, taxes and profit. As you stretch out that rubber band the profit expands like everything else.

An executive with Yellow Zebra Safaris told me recently that their business model – which is excellent – is also simple: 30% commission on any product whose price appears in the public domain. If the treehouse won’t give it to them that way, they won’t sell it. Obviously they make more selling a treehouse for a thousand dollars than a hundred.

Down the chain at AndBeyond another executive confided in me that their “capitalization” isn’t just reflecting their rich customers with better toilets and lighting and wifi, it may mean dumping their lower end properties like Kichwa Tembo or Ngala.

So if you depend on the rich world for your butter and bread, and the rich world is getting richer, then you better serve it out on grammie’s Wedgewood.

What mitigates against this is the local market. Kenya is a wonderful example. Kenyan tourism suffered terribly like all African tourism but nowhere near as bad as Tanzania or Uganda or Rwanda. This is because like the more mature countries such as South Africa, they’ve developed a local market. It’s why Serena Hotels has survived but Sopa Hotels seems to be faltering.

Eventually if you as a western consumer with a budget orientation get your act together, you’ll learn how to buy Serena products correctly and you’ll be saving a ton. Eventually this will regenerate a middle market because you as a foreign consumer are accustomed to more frills than the local Kenyan.

But the question is how long does “eventually” take to get here?

Not soon. Not five years and maybe even longer than ten. So if you’re in the market for a safari in the next five years, buck up.