How African luxury tourism is heading off the beaten track
For growing numbers of today’s high-end travelers, holidays are less about sipping cocktails on sandy beaches and more about opting for new experiences they can’t get at home.
Africa has long been a favorite destination for safaris and hot air balloon flights over migrating herds but now the hospitality and tourism industries are exploring new locations to cater for luxury traveler’s increasing appetite for adventure.
“African tourism has evolved significantly in the last decade with a new wave of young, affluent travelers, as well as the so-called baby-boom generation, fueling demand for high-end experiential travel,” explains Xander Nijnens, head of Sub-Saharan Africa Hotels and Hospitality at JLL.
People want authenticity but they also want novelty. And when it comes to luxury travel, there’s also the exclusivity factor.
“People are willing to travel deeper and further beyond more frequented destinations such as the Maasai Mara,” Nijnens says. “That has in turn meant that areas that have been less developed are now coming into focus. Hotel operators are changing their game.”
While established hotels with sweeping views of the surrounding landscape and watering holes continue to attract steady flows of guests, more nomadic options such as luxury camping and integrated lodges are becoming increasingly popular.
“There’s certainly been a move away from traditional bricks,” says Nijnens. “Guests still want many creature comforts like comfortable bedding, fine dining and hot showers but they want them in a different type of setting that makes for a unique and memorable trip.”
And of course, the natural wilderness and eye-catching designs of many new developments lend themselves well to social media.
“Sharing experiences online has brought a new element to African travel,” Nijnens says. “And that’s helping to promote the continent’s lesser-known locations meaning large tourism marketing budgets are not needed.”
Making the most of nature
Countries across Africa are playing to their strengths in what they offer luxury travelers. In Rwanda, that is gorillas, and with the price of a trekking permit to visit them in their natural habitat doubling to US$1,500, the country is targeting lower numbers of high-spending guests – an approach also taken by established luxury destination Botswana.
“Unlike South Africa or Kenya which have several big tourism draws dotted around the country, Rwanda needs to make the most of its main attraction,” says Nijnens.
And where high-spending tourists in search of the natural touch go, luxury hotels are not far behind. In Botswana, camping tents with luxury bathrooms in a “semi desert” setting have been created by the owners of Jack’s Camp. In Rwanda, for example, Bisate Lodge in Rwanda, which opened in 2017 and is built into a volcanowith exterior walls made from woven natural materials.
The use of raw materials such as wood and clay is not just aesthetic, with environmental impact also a factor. Some countries are moving towards hotel concepts which minimize the effect on the very landscape many tourists are there to visit. In the Seychelles, which was visited by almost 350,000 people in 2017, a 15 percent rise on 2016, a major tree-planting effort is underway and a moratorium was last year put on construction of new hotels across the archipelago.
South Africa’s non-profit Grootbos Foundation,which runs a range of luxury accommodation, has worked with – rather than against – the environment by planting trees, while also educating locals through its college and tuition schemes.
“Proximity to nature is one thing, but tourists also want to feel they are getting close to the people of the country they visit,” says Nijnens. “Getting closer to nature also means getting closer to the way people live.”
Room for more high-end hotels
That does not mean more classic hotel concepts are completely left behind, however. In gateway cities, hotel chains and independent operators are also benefiting from travelers looking for high-quality accommodation.
In Kigali, Radisson Blu launched a new 292-room luxury complex in 2016, with the Marriott group also opening in the Rwandan capital in 2017, its first in sub-Saharan Africa. Demand for city stays is being met by major global operators, as well as smaller boutique concepts, such as the Silo Hotel in Cape Town, Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, and Hemingways in Nairobi.
“People will always need somewhere to stay when they arrive or before they fly out of one of the big cities,” says Nijnens. “The global chains are strong in gateway cities due to the business nature of the market, yet they also cater to leisure visitors to African capitals. What’s really changed is the more diverse type of vacation being taken in-between that first and last night.”
And with the global luxury travel industry set to generate more than $1.1 trillion by 2022 according to Allied Market Research, competition for high-spending guests is only going to increase. For all those involved in the luxury tourism industry in Africa, the pressure is on to offer new and exclusive experiences while having a positive impact on both nature and their surrounding communities.
“It’s an exciting time for experiential travel in Africa,” concludes Nijnens. “Done well, it offers lifelong memories for guests and long-term, sustainable benefits for local economies across the region.”