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Thu 2 Nov 2006 04:00 AM

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Call of the wild

A safari is no longer just camping with attitude, but a soft adventure option that can include spa, gourmet cuisine and four-poster accommodation. Kathi Everden looks at the potential to upsell and reviews some options

|~|Lux-saf-large.gif|~|Once clients are hooked on game drives and safari holidays, it is easy to up sell to more adventurous or niche products, according to Kanoo Holidays.|~|Once upon a time, every safari feature would begin with an explanation that the word ‘safari’ actually meant to travel, an experience that would put the tourist at the frontiers of civilisation with just a pup tent between them and the great outdoors.

Along came customised camper vans with their roofs cut off, and the safari was introduced to the not so intrepid traveller as a mobile photo hide from where they could record their confrontation with the Big Five in darkest Africa - in the company of two-dozen other such vans.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the safari has come almost full circle – star-lit dinners in the bush with white-gloved silver service, hot air ballooning over the teeming animal herds, al fresco beauty treatments in the hands of fully qualified masseuses, or just a relaxing afternoon in a fully stocked library, topped off with afternoon tea and cakes.

It’s a far cry from the heat and dust of traditional safari territory, and it is one with enormous potential for the travel trade in the Middle East, catering as it does to the growing demand for the unusual twinned with all the comforts of the (five-star) home.

However, the Dark Continent of Africa is very much an unknown quantity for many travel agents, as well as their customers, and product knowledge is an area where every avenue needs to be explored in order to offer new options.

Currently, fly-in short safaris in Kenya and multi-centre tours in South Africa, incorporating a mini safari, are the best sellers, but with increasing air access provided by airlines such as Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Gulf Air and Emirates Airlines, as well as their own holiday programmes, the potential to drive sales is growing.

Etihad Holidays, for instance, has focused on South Africa in its winter outbound programme – planning a trade workshop this winter – and has offered a unique halal/no alcohol option aimed at boosting interest from its predominantly local clientele.

According to planning and purchasing manager, Julia Denny, the range of options in the country is so vast, that the operator has cherry picked one or two lodges across the price range.

“Safari is something relatively unknown and while Gulf travellers are not pioneers in travel, once they start going to South Africa, we think that will really get the ball rolling,” she says.

“However, there is a need for education on the whole experience, that safari is not just sitting in vehicles watching animals but a whole lot more.”

Etihad Holidays’ new brochure also includes escorted tours out of Johannesburg, which Denny claims might be of more interest in the local market.

“GCC travellers tend to look for city-based holidays and retail therapy, but one option might be the Pilanesburg safari out of Sun City which is an easier sell,” she says.

Certainly, with a new representative in the Gulf in Fusion Marketing, Sun International is aiming to boost awareness in the GCC and first timers can wrap animal adventure in to the mix of water park, sports, spa, casino and entertainment facilities.

According to Fusion’s executive director, Nikki Page, Sun City is a South African icon and one that appeals to a diverse market from families to honeymooners.

“Safari is a big draw card and one that is definitely of great appeal to children, but it is not the only one and most clients would also opt to visit Cape Town and the Eastern Cape.”

Sun City itself caters to a range of accommodation options, from three-star Cabanas up to The Palace, a deluxe themed hotel with top-of-the-range suites in a tower overlooking the whole complex.

But its appeal is easy access to the huge range of facilities that include a cultural village, health spa, cinemas, shows, children’s centre, two golf courses, elephant sanctuary, crocodile farm, water park and a wedding gazebo.||**||Big game show|~|Oberoi.gif|~|Jungle rides to spot tigers are available at Oberoi Vanyavilas in Ranthambhore National Park.|~|But, while safari in Pilanesburg is a tick in the Big Five game box, customers seeking a more authentic, albeit five-star, experience have to travel farther afield, according to Urvashi Kumar at Sharaftravel, GSA for South Africa Airways.

“Travellers who don’t have much time on their hands and are price conscious opt for a safari out of Sun City,” she says. “But the experience in Kruger is truly something else, something magical.

“People are still not aware of the perks of going on a safari, where it can be an adventure and, at the same time, a perfect honeymoon getaway, disconnected from the outside world but living amid pure nature.”

South African national, Zaeem Gama, sales and marketing manager at Kanoo Holidays, is equally keen to highlight the satisfaction levels of guests on a safari holiday.

“It is a great word of mouth referral product and there is potential for repeat business, but it is not generally a cheap option and people would not tend to go every year,” he says.

“But, once hooked, there is the opportunity to up sell to a better product – the wildebeest migration in Tanzania and Kenya for instance, which is a unique sight, or the Okavango in Botswana, desert animals in Namibia or gorilla safaris in Uganda.

“There is a real need to visit to gain an appreciation of the product, but Kenya and South Africa are easier to sell as a good introduction to safari, and this is where we are seeing growth – as well as an interest from corporate clients for team building and incentives.”

At Qatar Airways Holidays, product supervisor, Anna Fernandes, has also reported increased sales for safari holidays, with local clients beginning to take an interest, as well as the expatriate crowd.

“From January, we will be operating to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania and this will enable us to add more options for the Serengeti, as well as Ngorongoro and Mt. Kilimanjaro,” she says.

“Africa can be a destination for couples and honeymooners, as well as families, although choosing the right safari is important.”

Offering perhaps the biggest choice of lodges, Emirates Holidays is equally bullish on Africa as a holiday destination.

“Overall, we are finding a growth in safari tourism with South Africa and East Africa enjoying a healthy first time visitor rate, as well as a good repeater rate,” says Merja Pollok, destination development manager for the Middle East, Africa & Indian Ocean.

“The trend is leaning towards FIT clients rather than group series clients, and while seat-in coach safari is popular in East Africa, group business is increasing in volumes for ad hoc, specialised and incentive travel in South Africa – and the demand for the luxury segment of the market is also on the increase.”

On the ground, African tour operators active in the Middle East are equally optimistic about potential for increased business from the region, and are also of the opinion that more needs to be done on the trade education front.

Divisional director for Springbok Atlas, Heidi Helm, says her company is looking to run a workshop in Dubai this month with an aim to follow up on interest generated at Arabian Travel Market.

“There is potential here and enquiries we are getting are mostly at the top end level, for safari combined with other highlights of South Africa,” she says.

African Pride’s Patrick Hewett adds that while African tourism marketing authorities could be doing more to promote safaris and to overcome the perception of it as a camping holiday, there is room to increase awareness in the Middle East, particularly among the expat riate market, which tends to be more safari and adventure oriented.

“Some of our safari lodges are ranked among the top boutique style properties in the world, combining five-star accommodation and luxury spa facilities with some of the finest safari services anywhere in the world,” he says.

“In South Africa, we tend to offer a more high-end experience than East Africa with small, privately-owned lodges and off-road driving that enables clients to get very close to the animals. The overall experience is more exclusive and private than in East Africa.”

This quality is reflected in the pricing, at upwards of US$300 a night, but this is inclusive of accommodation, game drives and all meals, as well as some special pampering and treats if required.

And, as with every deluxe sector, the hunt is on to add more VIP touches to distinguish a lodge from its competitor.

In South Africa, Sabi Sabi, a well known name in Kruger National Park, offers 13 luxury suites with plunge pools, and a spa and wine cellar at its Earth Lodge, while Richard Brandson’s Ulusaba Private Game Reserve can accommodate wedding and honeymoon packages including canyon helicopter rides and spa pampering.

Farther north, the ultimate colonial safari experience is available at Kirawira tented camp, with luxurious Edwardian furnishings, chaise longues, Persian rugs, antique wind-up phonograms, brass shooting sticks, a stained glass and mahogany bar, white-glove service and four-poster beds.

There’s also Sable Treehouses, 30 minutes from the Kenyan coast, offering contrasting accommodation with two treehouses of 21m² equipped with a sunken jacuzzi on a viewing deck, butler service and private dining, while Loisaba in northern Kenya has a six-seat helicopter for private charter or helicamping, as well as Star Beds – raised platforms partially thatched reached by camel, horse or foot for the ultimate night under the stars.

Then, there’s the Nitani Private Game Reserve in Botswana with five stilted suites, all with plunge pools, plus spa and wellness centre, and an astronomy platform, or Abu Camp’s private villa for four people with butler service, dedicated pool and safari vehicle for those seeking a total exclusive environment, or the Elephant Back Safari – touted as the most expensive accommodation in Africa with dedicated safari vehicles.

But, for the travel trade, one drawback in booking safaris, particularly at the high-expectation luxury end of the market, is the lack of known names and distribution channels, most without representation in the Gulf, making reliance on a local tour operator essential, and adding in another price level to the final package.

In this respect, the expansion of airline tour operations has helped, while other alternatives include the expansion of premium hotel operators to capitalise on the trend towards new experiences.

Fairmont, for example, has moved in to Kenya, taking over five iconic properties, including the Norfolk in Nairobi, the Mount Kenya and Mara Safari Clubs.

The company is currently upgrading and revamping these to deluxe standards, aiming to offer a branded safari experience.

According to former area director, Michael Kaile, these trophy properties will incorporate upgraded standards in all areas, as well as additions such as spas in the future.

“We are doing environment assessments as there are water and quality issues, as well as bringing over staff for Fairmont training,” he says. “Next year, we will have a very different product and one that with the Fairmont name will give people confidence to buy without going through a middle man.”

Going farther afield, other names have entered the soft adventure market too, with Four Seasons, for instance, opening a new property in Thailand with a natural theme earlier this year.

Billed as the smallest Four Seasons property in the world, and its only all-inclusive option, the ‘hotel’ is a 15-tent camp located in the Golden Triangle.

Accessible only by riverboat, the resort is sited within the jungle canopy, but roughing it, Four Seasons’ style, comes with air-conditioned tents, king-size beds, sundeck with massage beds, wine cellar, free-form pool and formal or campfire cuisine, along with a hands-on elephant training experience, jungle treks and Mekong cruising.

According to Four Seasons’ regional director, Maria Kuhn, the ideal stay is between November and March, combining a three-night stay at the camp with city stays in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, or, from February, the new Four Seasons resort on Koh Samui.

Oberoi, too, can claim exquisite locations, natural charms and exceptional luxury in its Indian hotels, particularly the unique tiger safari available at the Oberoi Vanyavilas, next to Ranthambhore National Park and accessible via a three-hour drive from Jaipur.

Former general manager, Lincy Isaacs, now Oberoi’s regional sales and marketing person based in Dubai, recommends a three-night stay to allow for morning and evening jungle rides to spot the tigers, particularly visible between April and June.
“The tigers sell the destination as there are not many places where you can see them anymore,” she says.

“Another USP of the resort is our two elephants, available for guests to ride on jungle trails for picnics … outside the tiger reserve.”

The resort itself is again tented, with 25 units set in 20 acres of lush landscaping, each with air conditioning, teakwood flooring, luxurious bathrooms, private decks and walled gardens, and other facilities include spa therapy suites, heated pool, billiards, Rajasthani folk performances, terrace restaurant, library, bar and cigar room.

And, as a recognised brand, it offers back to nature luxury with guaranteed quality. ||**||THE SALES PITCH|~|Zebras.gif|~||~|Packages:
Etihad Holidays: two nights at the five-star Kwantu Game Lodge, full board, game drives included, is priced $528 per person, based on twin share.
Serena’s Mbuzi Mawe in Tanzania offers ringside seat for wildebeest migration with a full board double rate of $395 per tent during peak season from June to January.
Loisaba has a daily rate of between $300 and $470, fully inclusive of accommodation, food and beverages, game drives and other activities
Activities at Sun City/Pilanesburg: hot air ballooning, $375; elephant back safari, $143; evening game drive, $40.

Sales tips:
A short safari in Kenya or South Africa as a part of a longer holiday is a good introduction for novice safari travellers.
Facilities within each lodge or camp very much depend on price – the lower the cost, the more basic the accommodation and amenities.
Whatever the season, game drives in early morning and evening can be cold and travellers should pack accordingly.
Some camps do not accept children. Those that do usually have activity centres on site.
There is a huge difference between eastern and southern Africa in terms of what is on offer. Tanzania has huge sweeping plains; Kenya has Mount Kilimanjaro as a backdrop at several parks and a range of environments; South Africa offers a more up-close-and-personal animal experience; Botswana has floodplains and salt pans; while Namibia has unique desert attractions.
Wildlife and nature holidays are not limited to Africa; big cats, elephants and more are found in Asia and offer a tropical environment.

NOTE: Anyone travelling to South Africa must now have two consecutive blank pages in their passport, which lie side by side when it is open, and passports must also be valid for six months. Those failing to comply with these requirements risk deportation. In addition, a parent travelling with children without the other parent must have a letter of consent, certified by the police, from the absent parent.||**||

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