Africa was once seen as a once-in-a-lifetime experience — destination tourism at its best. However, the continent is shrugging off this label and its limitations, attracting repeat visitors, large corporate groups and international hotel brands. Laura Warne investigates the challenges and rewards of entering the first continent.
As Toto famously sang "sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti" Africa will continue to fascinate tourists the world over. The vast continent is home to unique experiences, landscapes and wildlife; from safari tours across the plains to mountainous retreats and the mysteries of the Nile. Regarded by many scientists as the birthplace of the first humans, Africa inspires an almost spiritual awe in travellers.
As the second largest continent in the world, after Asia, Africa comprises 53 countries, including Madagascar and several associated island groups.
Change doesn't happen quickly, but when it does it's definitely embraced.
This diversity creates a trend towards "circuit bookings", according to Fairmont vice president regional hotel sales for Middle East and Africa Kent Cooper.
"That's a big trend in Africa - to book circuits and visit several locations on one trip," he says.
"You definitely need critical mass to capture that touring business."
Fairmont's strategy has been to create a trio of strategically placed East African hotels to capitalise on this trend; Mara Safari Club in the Masai Mara, Mount Kenya Safari Club and Fairmont The Norfolk in Nairobi. The three properties have recently been renovated - to the tune of US $25 million - and will be officially re-launched in March 2009.
"We've always had Kenya as a group and with Zanzibar coming online we were able to get a more diverse collection," says Cooper.
Of course working in Africa is not without its challenges; the top issues for hoteliers include dealing with developing infrastructure, slow bureaucratic processes and communication difficulties.
Kempinski vice president of sales and marketing for Middle East and Africa Roland Obermeir says communication technology is particularly troublesome.
"Slow internet connections are probably our biggest challenge, not only so we need the internet, but we also need to provide sufficient speed and safe connections for our guests and in some destinations this means going to extremes like lease lines or if not available ADSL plus a satellite dish on the roof," says Obermeir.
"Each and every project in the various countries of course brings its own challenges with it, be it for different legislation, labour... but hey, that's what makes the job so exciting."
Hyatt International South West Asia vice president of sales and marketing Thierry Bertin says South Africa continues to be a top business destination among GCC travellers thanks to its strong economic and trade ties with the Middle East region.
According to Bertin the recent increase in the number of flights from destinations across the Middle East to Johannesburg has led to a demand for world-class business hotels.
"Johannesburg provides a gateway for travellers from the region looking to benefit from the business opportunities in South Africa and the rest of the African region," says Bertin.
In East Africa, Fairmont's Cooper says that while the Middle Eastern tourist market doesn't register as a major player when compared to Europe and the US, there is definitely a lot of demand from the region.
"We're going to have some packages coming out with Emirates for the launch of the East Africa collection and we're going to use that partnership to its fullest," he says.
"The Emirates flight down into Nairobi is typically sold out."
Cooper says the service and "comfort factor" is key for this region and Fairmont organises as much as possible for the client, especially for the popular circuit packages.
"For a lot of our bookings the customer will just tell us how many days they want at each property and we'll do everything, including transfers and internal flights," he says.In addition to the GCC market, Cooper says Fairmont is targeting travellers from South Africa (to visit East Africa), India and China.
He believes these emerging markets are the ones to watch, especially in the wake of the global credit crunch situation.
Obermeir says the Kempinski brand is also looking to capture new tourist markets.
Africa is overlooked by a lot of the major international companies.
"We have managed to improve the mix of our existing key feeder markets such as Central and East Europe but have also started receiving guests from new markets such as Brazil and USA," says Obermeir.
"GCC travellers to Africa are mainly corporate travellers so far with an observed increase in leisure demand particularly for GCC families from KSA, UAE and Kuwait."
He says GCC guests are looking for facilities such as security, privacy, Halal food products, Arabic speaking staff and diversified activities for the whole family.
Coming back for more
Traditional activities such as safaris, nature walks and historical sight-seeing still top the "to-do" lists of most tourists in Africa.
However, new trends are surfacing as more socially-conscious travellers venture into Africa.
"We're seeing a lot more environmentally-focused trips where guests are asking if they can come in and help build villages," says Cooper.
"That's going to be an emerging trend; it's not all that popular right now, but we can definitely see it on the horizon."
Ultimately, he says for tourists in Africa "it's all about the experience" and most guests want to do something out of the ordinary.
For example, Fairmont recently arranged a 50th anniversary dinner for a visiting couple on the top of Mount Kenya.
Clearly the "once in a lifetime" mentality still holds sway, even among repeat guests.
The Fairmont's Presidents Club recognition programme has seen a dramatic increase in the past year.
"The change that we've seen is a shift from the inexperienced traveller - that would be the traveller coming to Africa for the first time, typically in a group - and now we're seeing repeat clients," he says. "These clients are no longer booking packages; they're confident in the location and they're calling directly."
However, group bookings are still very important, particularly to encourage new travellers; Cooper says people are far more likely to visit Africa for the first time as part of a group. This trend is apparently true for both corporate and leisure travellers.
There is also a large "prize-winner" and corporate rewards market in Africa.
"For incentive travel winning a trip to Kenya or South Africa is a wonderful experience," says Cooper.
One of the most important things for hoteliers in Africa, according to Fairmont's Cooper, is to "never lose sight of comfort".
He explains that while the wild landscapes and rough terrains of the continent are an attraction for guests, they still expect five-star service and products from their hotel.Chief executive of Kerzner International Sol Kerzner is counting on this expectation to fuel bookings at his upcoming One&Only Cape Town resort, set to open in the second quarter of 2009.
"One&Only Cape Town will become a significant landmark in Africa with its bold, contemporary design promising to make it one of the world's leading luxury resort destinations," says Kerzner. "Opening in plenty of time for the 2010 World Cup, the resort will appeal to the international traveller and play a key role in the local community."
The One&Only Cape Town is Kerzner's first hotel in South Africa since the completion of the Palace of the Lost City in Pilanesberg in 1992.
GCC travellers to Africa are mainly corporate travellers so far.
Three two-storey 800m² residential penthouses will dominate the top two floors of the resort's crescent shaped Marina Tower, with views across two World Heritage sites - Table Mountain and Robben Island.
This new 131-key resort will also feature the first Nobu restaurant in Africa; chef Nobu Matsuhisa promises to deliver his signature Japanese-inspired menu with some local South African twists. Embracing change
Bureaucratic processes are often slow and patience is an important quality for hoteliers working in Africa.
"If we're trying to do things differently it can be an education process - change doesn't happen quickly, but when it does it's definitely embraced," Cooper says. "You have to understand the culture and that's probably our first job as hoteliers - to find out who we're working with and what their motivation is.
"When we're going into a new country we need to know what the laws are, the employment regulations; that really impacts on how we set up our operation. If we do our homework there are no surprises."
Competition among properties in Africa can be a "mixed bag" according to Cooper, with a large percentage of local outlets.
"Down in South Africa international hotels only make up 7% of the marketplace, so it's a very small international market. Fairmont, in that it has two properties in South Africa, has a huge impact on that international market," he says.
"What we find is that South Africa is very protected because we're coming into their turf, but at the same time we find that people look forward to working with an international company."
He says international hotels must work hard to satisfy the expectations not only of guests but also of local owners and colleagues.
Just as the Fairmont did its homework before entering the region, Cooper explains that their local partners were well informed about the Fairmont brand before signing on.
"Africa is overlooked by a lot of the major international companies, but through our partnerships it's going to produce a tremendous lift for the company," Cooper says.
"The experiences these properties can deliver is second to none."
While he admits there are challenges, particularly with infrastructure, Cooper says preparation is the key to success.
"If we understand the boundaries and the limitations we can make plans for them, whether we have to drill our own well for water or arrange electricity," says Cooper.
"We're joining their community so we really have to be respectful, be gracious and come into the market that way." Credit crisis
Africa relies on a large market of European and US tourists, so the global economic crisis is definitely making itself known to hoteliers in the region.
"What we were seeing up until the crisis was that group bookings were steadily increasing," Cooper says.
"It's started to taper off a little and we've seen it across the board just like every other hotel company; business has been slowly decreasing."
He says the million dollar question is whether people will consider travel to be a privilege or a necessity in the new economic climate.
"If travel is the first to get cut it's going to have longer implications for the industry, but from what we know of our clientele, the last thing they're going to compromise on is their personal travel," he says.
While the mid-market may continue to taper off, Cooper believes the luxury and regular travel segment will remain strong.
Egypt- what about me?
Some confusion arises among hoteliers when faced with the question of whether Egypt is part of Africa or the Middle East.
There is currently no real consensus on the issue, with the industry split down the middle as to where it places this country in business plans and marketing packages.
Fairmont has listed its two Cairo properties as part of the Middle East due to its use of Arabic and various cultural links to the Middle East. However many other companies take a geographical stance and register the country as a part of Africa.
Cooper says the "gateway cities" of Africa are high on the list of priorities for international brands such as Fairmont.
"In Cairo right now we have two properties operating within Heliopolis. These are big properties - one with 580 rooms and 247 keys in the other one," he says.
"Our third one next year will be opening right on the Nile with 574 keys and a lot of the luxury that you would see in the Dubai hotels.
"We also just announced Marrakech, so we are going in to Morocco. That's still in the design phase and we're probably a few years out on that one, but I think what it shows is that we are really looking at getting in to these gateway cities."
Hyatt is also increasing its presence in Africa with the opening of Hyatt Regency Oubaai in South Africa, scheduled for 2010.
"The opening of Hyatt Regency Oubaai is part of Global Hyatt's initiative to expand its brands in Africa," said Hyatt Europe, Africa and Middle East managing director Gebhard Rainer.
"Our second property in South Africa will increase Hyatt's presence in the region, and we look forward to welcoming our loyal guests to South Africa."
Hyatt Regency Oubaai will be part of the Oubaai Golf and Lifestyle Centre, a 315-acre upscale residential and golf development on the Garden Route, which extends along the Western Cape from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth.
Overlooking the Indian Ocean on Harold's Bay, the development will also feature Ernie Els' first 18-hole championship golf course in South Africa.For all the latest travel news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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