African safari

The last Hippo Creek Safari was cut short — in mid-March, the veteran tour operator's guest flew out of Botswana several days early once news of impending lockdowns hit. She never made it to Rwanda. 

Covid-19 had arrived in Africa, restricting travel in and out of the continent.

The restrictions spell trouble for Africa, both its people and its animals, the bread and butter of safari travel.

Daniel Saperstein, owner of Hippo Creek Safari, said it was a "scramble" working to get the guest out on a flight before flights filled up. His team worked overnight facilitating the departure of the safari guest.

Meanwhile, Laurie Newman was on safari with nascent operator Brave Africa. She ended up on a private safari with Tabona Wina, one of the company's co-owners. Isolated in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Newman extended her trip but made it out of the country — and Africa — and back to the United States before it would become impossible to do so.

"She successfully made it home on the last flight out of the country," says Colorado-based Kelly Vo, who along with her husband, Patrick Vo, co-own Brave Africa with Wina.

As Covid-19 escalated, reaching South Africa and eventually Botswana and other African nations, safari operators and tour companies focused on rescheduling, postponing, deferring and sometimes refunding most of a party's planned safari as the industry went dark nearly overnight.

"Coronavirus has put a stop to everything," says Patrick Vo.

"I have not had a new safari booking since this started," says Betty Jo L Currie of Currie & Co. Travels Unlimited in Atlanta.

Currie, who also consults for luxury travel adviser Virtuoso, finds herself — like the Vos and Saperstein — in a holding pattern, at the mercy of things she cannot control.

Several months into the pandemic, with lockdown restrictions in place around the world, the safari has literally been canceled. While the virus had run loose for months, the pandemic wasn't officially declared until March 11, creating a kind of panic for those traveling, especially internationally.

It's neither clear when safari travel will return nor what it will take for it to recover.

Once travel resumes, and in some parts of the world, that's already starting to become a reality, it's possible the safari's recovery will lag behind other industries. Patrick Vo expresses concern about the potentially slow recovery, especially as it relates to poaching.

"The longer we are not out in the wild, the longer the poaching can be without any type of constraint or without any opposition, so to speak."

In spite of the uncertainty, the empty lodges, the grounded flights and the increase in poaching according to a report in "The New York Times," industry leaders express optimism about the safari's future.

Saperstein says the vast majority of his company's clients are looking forward to traveling as soon as it is feasible — whether that translates to as early as this summer or in the fall.

"A few have indicated that they would like to wait until vaccines are available, which is completely understandable as well, and we have already moved several trips into next year to support that (and have agreements with the camps that will allow further postponements if it's still not medically safe for those particular travelers to be in Africa by then)."

Although the safari is no stranger to tragedy and upheaval — Ebola outbreaks and the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, two examples cited by Currie and Saperstein, respectively — the current issues are what Saperstein, an industry veteran, calls "unprecedented."

As such, companies such as Hippo Creek and Brave Africa are trying to be as flexible as possible as the situation evolves.

Wina notes that many of Brave Africa's guests who were supposed to be on safari now have opted to postpone rather than outright cancel.

April safaris have been moved to September and beyond.

Nicole Robinson, chief marketing officer for luxury safari company andBeyond, says they are also seeing postponements instead of cancellations: "Ninety percent of our guests opted to postpone travel instead of canceling.

"We're preparing for a slow recovery. What we're hearing from our key markets is that local travel will most likely pick up first.

"We're also hearing, something very encouraging to us, that travelers are more likely to be interested in travel to explore nature and turning to more meaningful, purposeful travel experiences."

Patrick Vo says: "If our guests can get to Africa, we can take them out on an amazing safari."

But until international travel resumes, no one can go on safari, making "the safari as good as dead," according to Wina, and underlining the industry's dependence on outside factors, namely flights.

If you can't get people to Africa, you cannot get them on safari.

Saperstein views the early African precautions as going a long way toward things getting up and running again. He's based in the United States and says Africa's "much more stringent lockdown" has him feeling "hopeful that they can reopen quickly when it is safe to do so."

Even though there's no date on the calendar which you can look to and say "this is when safaris will be back in session," Wina nonetheless encourages booking: "You can book for end of this year" with the option to defer if travel to Africa does not resume. But of course, Wina and the other operators are eager for the safari's recovery; it's directly related to their livelihood and to the protection of the animals.

Yet, it's perhaps unsurprising that Currie hasn't had a new safari booking Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. For now, she's just actively rescheduling and hoping that the demand will be there when it's safe to travel again.

Safaris are often planned quite far in advance since lodges, especially in the luxury category, are small and fill up quickly; Brave Africa has inquiries for safaris in 2021 and in 2022.

Currie has faith in would-be safari-goers: "And if you care about conservation and sustainability and wildlife and cultural and communities, then clearly that deposit is going to go toward that effort."

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