Safari bookings from the US, UK and Germany are all showing impressive growth.
The end of the hype around the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, together with a favourable exchange rate between hard currencies like the dollar, pound and euro against the rand has seen bookings out of the US, UK and Germany bounce back after a dip in 2015. Some operators are reporting double-digit growth. The challenge for operators is to accommodate this demand, especially with often short lead times.
Lara Vancans, National Sales Director, USA at Sanctuary Retreats, says bookings from the US really took a toll in response to Ebola due to a lack of geographical understanding of the continent and of the disease itself. “Now that Ebola has fallen out of the headlines and that the Southern African region, in particular, has been out of the headlines, confidence has returned to the market.”
Craig Drysdale, GM: Global Sales at Thompsons Africa, says the exchange rate is driving a surge in bookings out of the US, UK and Germany. “South Africa, and particularly the private reserves, are very attractive at the moment because of the strong rate of exchange,” he says. “Bookings are coming out of our ears at the moment. Everything is up.” Speaking about the exchange, Michelle Hollis, Sales Manager for Isibindi Africa Lodges, points out that because of the exchange rate, a lot of South Africa’s product is cheaper than it was in 2010, despite annual increases. For example, a lodge that was priced at R2 850 in September 2010, would cost $434 at the exchange rate at the time, while today the same room at R4 140 will work out to roughly $262.
Alessandra Allemann, Sales and Marketing Director of Welcome Tourism Services, says there has been an increase in bookings out of both the US and German markets. “Because of the Ebola outbreak at the beginning of 2015, a big number of bookings were placed on hold, but since late last year we have seen a definite increase in forward bookings, especially now due to weakened rand,” she says of the German market, adding that the US market has similarly shown an increase in bookings.
However, Julian Asher of Timeless Africa, points out that, while there has been an increase in bookings from the US to South Africa, issues around the unabridged birth certificate requirement continue to affect the market. “People are now looking at booking for the school holidays, but the uncertainty around that situation is not a plus,” he says, pointing out that a family of four need to make a substantial investment to book a holiday to the country, and will not risk rejection because they do not have the required documents.
Vivian McCarthy, GM at UK-based Acacia Africa, says forward bookings for the peak safari season this year are currently running into double-digit percentage increases for Southern Africa. “The depreciating rand has made South Africa and neighbouring Namibia very attractive destinations to UK adventurers travelling on a budget because of the very favourable exchange rate to sterling,” he says.
Dirk Brunner, MD and owner of Munich-based afrika tours individuell, says bookings out of the German market are looking great. “If we compare our generated bookings for 2016 by now with the same time 2015 we have generated more than double the amount of bookings already and we are still very busy generating more,” he says. Likewise, Katja Quasdorf, Product and Marketing Director for Jenman Safaris, says the German guided departures are already fully booked for August-October.
According to Brunner, growth out of the German market is being driven by the weak rand, while travel is also being diverted to Southern Africa because of safety concerns in other destinations. “Clients are more concerned about travelling to countries that have been hit by terrorism, such as Turkey and Egypt, or other Arab countries where there might be a potentially higher risk of such attacks. This, I guess, is also one more reason that might shift the holiday decision for 2016 to southern Africa.”
According to Brunner, the work of SA Tourism in marketing South Africa has also helped to drive growth in bookings from this market. “A lot of advertising is being done by SA Tourism and this promotes the country very well,” he says, adding that South Africa is quite present in the media. “Pretty much every week there is some positive news about South Africa and Cape Town being one of the most beautiful travel destinations in the world.”
However, both Brunner and Asher point out that destinations that are priced in dollars will be more expensive for travellers who are not from the US. Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique are all priced in dollars. Rolf Stolzenwald, of German-based SA Landprogramm, says while he has seen an increase in bed nights booked at South African lodges and rest camps, Botswana has seen a dip out of this market. “Botswana quotes in US dollars and as Botswana is an expensive destination, this makes it even more expensive because of the weak euro against the US dollar.”
Bookings to Zimbabwe are also showing growth out of the US and UK, although Germany remains flat, says Ross Kennedy, Atta Chairman and Chief Executive of Africa Albida. He explains that pent up demand in the US, has seen an increase in FIT and group series business. “2016/17 is looking much stronger,” he says. “The UK market has been growing steadily since 2012 and grew again in 2015, despite some impediments, and signs for 2016/17 confirm that growth will prevail. New group series will build arrivals from the UK significantly.” According to Kennedy, the Ebola scare was the biggest negative issue last year, followed by South African visa regulations and Zimbabwean VAT.
However, the increase in demand is also challenging for operators, especially over peak safari seasons. This is compounded by the increasingly short booking times out of these key markets. Renate Oostmeijer, General Manager at Tau Game Lodge, says the very favourable exchange rate for visitors traveling from overseas has set a trend of bookings being made at very short notice. Both Craig van Rooyen, Director at Tour d'Afrique, and Onne Vegter, Director of Wild Wings Safaris, say that while forward bookings are up, last-minute or short-notice bookings are challenging. Allemann also says that the influx in bookings has resulted in some availability challenges.
“We get many requests for the various peak seasons at different destinations at the last minute, many of them with less than a month’s lead time, making it almost impossible to assist these clients,” says Vegter. “A significant percentage of our FIT enquiries are for travel dates less than three months away, which is a major concern as many of the most popular destinations are fully booked well in advance during their peak seasons – Cape Town in December, Kruger Park in July, Ndutu, Tanzania in February, Botswana in August-September, etc.”
According to Oostmeijer, since January, the company has seen an influx of airline crews and expats booking at extremely short notice. “The fact that there might not be any availability for entire groups when requesting only a few weeks ahead of the required dates, unfortunately also means that we have to decline these requests due to the dates no longer being available,” she says. However, she adds that, with the favourable exchange rate, some people are thinking as far ahead as December. “Immediately after this year’s festive season was over we received confirmed bookings for the next December holidays already, so trends are dual; extremely short notice and well in advance.”